Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

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

Figure of Ala in an mbari. Igbo peoples, Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

Larger than life-size, Ala dominates the most accessible side of houses dedicated to her. Like other Igbo deities, she is ambivalent, considered good—she peels yams for her "children" (villagers) with the knife she holds aloft—and potentially evil—“dark Ala, who kills those who offend her." But her face, like those of most mbari inhabitants, is white, the honorific color of goodness and purity (and having nothing to do with race or actual skin color). As Earth, she opens "to swallow people" in graves, the same Earth that provides yam, the main prestige food, plus other plant and animal life. Despite being an older woman of high status (Igbo culture is gerontocratic), she is a principal font of human, animal, and agricultural fertility and productivity.

Behind Ala are two elongated figures in high relief that represent the "spirit workers" initiated into the sacred building activity—liminal beings whose rendering in relief, rather than three dimensionally, reinforces their status as "in between." Note too the two figures seated above, on the "second storey" level, with a painted cloth between them.