Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

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

One of the female “spirit workers” pounds “yam” that will be given to artists (behind) to model figures. Igbo peoples, Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

The ritualized construction process needs to be considered separately from the completed monument. Its activities recall the (former) relocation of villages and gods in new sites because the land got depleted from overuse, from slash and burn agriculture, as well as the planting of farms, which was actually done to feed workers in large mbari that occupied more than a year in the building. Spirit workers chosen (by divination) from major community lineages were ritually killed, isolated from their families for several weeks, living at the site. In their status as spirits they took on new names, special dress, sometimes new spouses, and gave their lives over to the mbari for the duration of its building -- as opposed to the hired help, men who were paid to dig the tons of earth needed for the building itself.