Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

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

Side of mbari to Nguma at Egbelu Obube Ulakwo by the artist, Nnaji. Igbo peoples, Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

This image proves many mbari to be cosmic symbols, as it includes, painted on the upper wall, images of the sun, moon, and rainbow, the latter interpreted as a double-headed python. On the left is a leopard pouncing, on the right a Mamy Wata whose arms, with snakes entwined, have broken. Above appear two females carrying purses, perched on the "second story."

Behind the figures, and typical of all mbari, are stepped buttresses with white imported china plates (or saucers) imbedded about three inches deep. More than 400 such plates have been counted in single mbari houses (eg., pages one and four of this essay). Such buttresses are called in Igbo, "eyes on the road," a probable reference to the "eyes of spirits" that, as carved geometric panels, form part of mens' meeting houses, where they are placed "looking" outward toward the compound entrance.