Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

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

Animals in the “cloister” at Agwa. Igbo peoples, Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

From the left: Okpangu (partly man, mostly ape), lion, and leopard. Such large animals are creatures of the distant past in this region, but they remain in legend and folklore. The ape-man, for example, appears in didactic stories about foolish behavior such as traveling on forest paths alone and/or without a protective weapon, or leaving a child alone near a fire or a river. Such people, stories relate, are beset by Okpangu. He throws rocklike seeds at men, or wrestles them, and wins; women he typically rapes, especially awful because of his large spikey penis. Leopards show the ambivalence of the four categories, for they are simultaneously very beautiful and terrifying. Leopards are shown attacking goats in several mbari (pages seven, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen of this essay); in the old days this was taken as a supernatural sign that a deity wanted an mbari house.

The baskets hanging under the roof (used for collecting "yam"), along with cloth, a knife, and yam, are the four things provided by God to early Igbo ancestors, according to creation stories.