Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

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

Mbari of the Igbo peoples in the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture. Jos, Northern Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

A completed version of a secular cement and concrete mbari commissioned by the National Museum for the Museum in Jos, several hundred miles north of Igboland, the place of origin for mbari houses. Unusual and ironical is the thatched roof, as thatching was discontinued in the Owerri region in the 1930s, for it was locally held that the gods must have only the finest and most prestigious materials in their houses (as the other images show). Only a few colors are used here as well, in contrast to earlier versions, and there is another image of the Igbo creator god, Chineke, plus several images more typical of Owerri region mbari. In general, however, this modern mbari adheres more closely to earlier models than does the Owerri park version (see page sixteen of this essay). 

This and the Owerri park mbari attest to the cultural importance of the mbari institution and its arts in an era when there are few Igbo remaining whose primary spiritual allegiance is to Ala, the Earth, and other local nature gods. When most of these pictures were taken in the 1960s, perhaps 80% of Igbo people worshipped local deities, but by 2010, perhaps only a scant 5% of older people had failed to embrace Christianity, which is now the prevailing spiritual affiliation of most Igbo people.