The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

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

The Nnorie mbari with buildings and figures completed, but only partially painted. Igbo artist, Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.    

In the foreground is an important ritual figure, the first one made after the core building is complete. Called "child of the bad mortar," this deliberately incomplete figure is sacrificed to (chicken feathers stick to it) as a scapegoat, to draw off any evil that might inadvertently and adversely affect subsequent mbari rituals and building activities. Along with painting supplies and brushes, this figure is thrown away (into one of the borrow pits) at the ritual night opening of the mbari, when spirit workers deny their own participation in the effort, as a way of removing themselves from the possible wrath of the deity. The fences surrounding the mbari (and barely visible in the background here) are then torn down and heaped into piles, then lit, so the new monument is first visible to the community by the light of these bonfires. This opening is followed a couple of days later by a festival, when the newly opened "sacrifice" is visited by flocks of people who offer small gifts to its main deity.