Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

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

Nnorie mbari in process, Igbo peoples, Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

Apprentice artist Godwin modeling a figure from "yam" that has been pounded into the right consistency in mortars, as actual yam is prepared when being made into balls of fufu, the preferred form for eating yam. In reality this is clay from anthills, which are numinous structures erected by white ants (termites) as tall as six or eight feet into the air. Anthills are considered "porches of the spirit world" and thus dangerous. Spirit workers collect this clay, already processed by ants, from deep within anthills, only at night, and carry it in baskets back to the site, soak it, then pound it (as in page five of this essay). Because queen ants can hatch up to 13 million eggs in one year, these impressive structures, and their clay, are associated with abundant fertility and increase—among the purposes for building an mbari house.