Unity in Diversity: Palace Art in Nigeria
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A palace is a space where power and grandeur are displayed, where art and symbolism are integral aspects of communicating power and royal splendor. This symbolic role of art as conveyer of royal power struck me more than anything else during my recent research trip to Dutse in Northwestern Nigeria. There, I encountered firsthand the aesthetic, spiritual, and political significance of palace art. As a guest of the Emir (spiritual and traditional ruler) of Dutse, Alhaji Nuhu Sanusi, I was given uncommon access to the palace, and an opportunity to behold and understand its history, evolution, and more importantly, its critical artistic significance.
The function of art is often bound up with conceptions of leadership, authority, and the exercise of power. The aesthetic elements of visual artistic objects reinforce and are reinforced by the function of art as a communicator of political value. My Dutse palace tour substantiated this interpretation, as the art of the Dutse palace is as storied as the palace itself; the palace and the paintings, drawings, etchings, and inscriptions that adorn its walls have evolved together over several centuries. So conscientious has been this evolution that the old palace at Garu and the new palace and Emir’s residence at Sumore (Yadi Kasarau) now look aesthetically identical, visually blurring the temporal and architectural distance between them. In this sense, art is a vital connection between the past of the palace and its present, between the spiritual–aesthetic preoccupations of the past and the romanticized nostalgia of the present.
The Islamic Emirate of Dutse
The history of the palace and its art is intertwined with that of Dutse as a city and as a center of an important Islamic emirate in Northern Nigeria. As the power and influence of Dutse grew, so did the need to project them through the high art of the emirate’s most potent symbol: the palace. Its visual impact is intended to complement the visual political effect of the Emir’s occasional appearance in full kingly regalia on decorated royal horses during Islamic celebrations (see fig. 1). The palace’s artistic renaissance corresponds to the recent restoration of its medieval autonomy by the Nigerian government. In 1991, the Nigerian government created Jigawa State and with it an independent emirate of Dutse, permanently removing Dutse from the control of the powerful ancient kingdom of Kano to its west.
This development prompted a serious effort on the part of Dutse’s rulers to recreate the artistic symbols and visual political appeal reminiscent of the kingdom’s past glories and political heritage. They consciously set out to give the Dutse palace an artistic identity befitting an independent, first-class Islamic emirate. This effort of political reclamation through art was so successful that the Nigerian government recently included the Dutse palace in its carefully compiled list of national landmarks, which is part of its “Heart of Africa” campaign aimed at showcasing Nigeria’s attractions and reviving tourism in the country. The Emir does not openly link this artistic revival to the emirate’s freedom from Kano control, which is understandable given Kano’s historical role as a mentor to Dutse and the cordial relations that now exist between the two ruling houses. He however speaks proudly of his effort to “restore and attract prestige and attention to Dutse,” a veiled acknowledgment that Dutse’s identity had been subsumed under Kano’s ubiquitous shadow, and that the Emirate needs to remake itself on its own terms.
Dutse Palace Art
Dutse palace art defies categorization, at least in terms of the traditional academic categories that govern the visual arts. At once aesthetic and expressively realistic, the artistic renderings on the walls of the palace are sometimes abstract and sometimes expressive of spiritual messages from the Quran, Islam’s holy book. Yet another dimension of this art is the use of secular realist symbols that are widely understood in political terms. For instance, one recurring motif in the paintings on the walls of both the old and new palaces is the Northern Knot (Dagin Arewa) (figs. 2 & 3). This motif, a familiar fixture in many Northern Nigerian artistic works, is a weave of intricately intersecting knots that signify the bonds of political unity envisioned for Northern Nigeria.
The Northern Knot is such an emotive symbol of Northern Nigerian power and political identity that it was adopted by politicians led by Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the first premier of Northern Nigeria and the holder of the prestigious Sokoto Caliphate traditional title of “Sarduana.” The symbol was adopted in the 1950s when Nigerian elites were preparing for political independence from Britain. This unity in diversity is encapsulated in the “One North” philosophy that was used to fight for representation and privileges for Northern Nigeria, and to counter what was perceived as Southern Nigerian persecution and political domination.
To the people of Dutse and other informed visitors to the palace, the symbol represents perhaps the most eloquent testament to Dutse’s belonging to the politico-religious tradition of the Sokoto Islamic Caliphate, a multi-ethnic Islamic empire created by the 19th-century Islamic reform movement of Othman bin Fodio. Since the Sarduana’s death in a military coup in 1966, the Northern knot has become a stand-in for Ahmadu Bello and his politics of Northern unity. Ahmadu Bello’s approval of the knot for use as a Northern Nigerian coat of arms and seal of authority gives the symbol additional importance. Its deployment in settings of aristocratic power like the Dutse palace performs both a political act of invoking and recalling Ahmadu Bello’s clout and affirming the authenticity of the palace’s uniquely Northern Nigerian prestige.
Some of the wall paintings and etchings are Quranic verses with an artistic, calligraphic slant. A recurring verse engraved in the walls of several of the palace’s chambers is the excerpt of a letter written by the second Sultan of the Sokoto Caliphate, Muhammad Bello, quoting a Quranic verse that translates as: “Moral leaders are those who lead their subjects by example in doing good, praying to God, giving alms, paying their tithes, and discouraging evil deeds.” The artistic emphasis here is as much on the form as it is on the content of the Quranic wall engraving. The artful verses are supposed to capture the imagination and to elicit aesthetic appreciation, but this is not an end in itself. The initial aesthetic attraction of the calligraphically rendered Quranic verses is supposed to draw the observer into the spiritual message of the inscriptions, leaving them absorbed in both the substantive and artistic effects of the inscriptions. The formal qualities of the inscriptions and their spiritual messages are thus mutually reinforcing, complementary, and coextensive.
Art and Heritage
In trying to reclaim a political and religious heritage that Dutse once embodied, Dutse’s rulers have actively employed the artistic medium. This reclamation of aristocratic and royal prestige was accelerated by the restoration of Dutse to the status of an independent emirate and a state capital in 1991. The Dutse emir’s palace is the epicenter of this effort to modernize by remaking tradition. Through carefully nurtured investments in court ornaments, engravings, wall designs, and other artistic forms that bespeak both nostalgic and current political preoccupations, Dutse’s rulers, led by Emir Alhaji Nuhu Sanusi, project the Dutse court as a potent connective symbol of the emirate’s past and present.
Moses Ochonu is Assistant Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University. He completed his PhD at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 2004, and is currently a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies. He is completing a book titled “Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression.” His research interests are in the economic, social, and political history of modern Africa. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, African Economic History, and Gefame.