The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

by Herbert M. Cole
Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara

Front side of mbari to Obiala by the artist Nnanji Ndiama Obube Ulakwo, Imo State, Nigeria, opened 1959. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

With thirty-three modeled figures surrounding a fully enclosed "two story" house, with stepped buttresses on all four sides, this is an average sized mbari for the 1950s. Those of the 1930s sometimes had more than two hundred figures of gods, people, and animals. "Mbari is life," say Owerri Igbo people, and larger ones strive to present a selective microcosm, a renewed world as a sacrifice to a major deity, normally in response to a catastrophe that has been visited upon the community. 

The monument is a merging of architecture, sculpture, bas relief, and painting, designed and executed as a work of art, as well as a major offering to an unseen but ever present god, in this case the goddess of the very Earth upon which people walk, the source of food plants and animals, and the main arbiter of tradition and moral law. It is planned and most of the sculpture is executed by a professional artist or "master builder" whose personal "hand" is evident in the modeling—especially of heads, where individual styles are most easily discerned (see page four of this essay for detail).