Mbari, a sacred visual art form perfected by the Owerri people in Imo State, has long been one of the most celebrated emblems of Igbo cultural heritage. Mbari is embodied in a house, traditionally two-storey, containing life-size figures, sculpted from mud and painted, and is presented as an art sacrifice to Ala, the earth deity. The best known description of Mbari art is from the late Chinua Achebe who wrote that:
Mbari was a celebration through art of the world and of life lived in it. It was performed by the community on command by its presiding deity, usually the Earth goddess, Ala, who combined two formidable roles in the Igbo pantheon as fountain of creativity in the world and custodian of the moral order in human society.
The Mbari sculptures sometimes include those of other deities in the Igbo cosmic system—particularly Idemmili, the deity of water, Amadioha, the deity of thunder, Ogwugwu, the deity of forests, and Ahajioku, the deity of harvest—and the animals believed to be their errand spirits, such as monkeys, tortoises, rams, owls, and snakes. Also included are human beings—ancestors, craftsmen, and even Europeans—as well as message instruments like the ikoro. The Mbari Cultural Centre in Owerri contained images of an ostrich, a man said to have been the tallest in Igboland, and a man with a stomach bloating due to an abomination he committed against Ala. The one in Aboh Mbaise houses artworks depicting social life.
The very building of an Mbari house, which takes years and is usually in a time of peace, is considered a sacred process that is different from the completed monument. The completed house is considered to symbolize abundance and harmony. In his Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland, the English art historian Herbert Cole notes:
The monument is a merging of architecture, sculpture, bas relief, and painting, designed and executed as a work of art, as well as a major offering to an unseen but ever-present God, in this case the goddess of the very Earth upon which people walk, the source of food plants and animals, and the main arbiter of tradition and moral law.
On completion, the town leaders would gather in it for a ceremony. Traditionally, the building is then left un-maintained and un-visited—to do otherwise would be taboo.
The emergence of Christianity as the dominant social influence in early 20th century Igboland saw the reduction of Mbari to simple art exhibitions and the slow death of the tradition. By the 1960s, however, its legacy spurred the naming of intellectual and artistic circles. In 1961, at the University of Ibadan, the Mbari Club was formed, including such leading thinkers as Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, and Christopher Okigbo, among others. It was followed by the Mbari Mbayo in Osogbo in 1962 and the Mbari-Enugu in 1963.
Despite the many sculptures of deities, Mbari was never a center of worship but an art form, museum-like in approach but steeped in religious and cultural practices and therefore placed in service of community. Mbari art is a celebration of life.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, editor, journalist, and curator. He is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture, art, photography, business, activism, and health. He has vast experience working in literature. He has sat on the judging panels of The Gerald Kraak Prize and of The Morland Writing Scholarship. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. For three years, Nov. 2016 to Apr. 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper into a continental powerhouse, ideating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians." He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.