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Mbari: A museum of appeasement among Ndigbo

By McPhilips Nwachukwu
There is something seriously missing in the documentation of Igbo religious life among Igbo scholars and historians. That thing is the tendency for scholars of Igbo history and religion to ignore the significance of Igbo religious mud museums, otherwise known as Mbari.

The Mbari architectural structures, commonly seen among the Mbaise and Owerri people of Imo State was an artistic appeasement to the gods, especially, the thunder god, Amadioha.

Sample of Mbari Art work
Sample of Mbari Art work
These Mbari structures, which were built and dedicated to the shrines of Amadioha in Okwuato, Enyiogugu, Nguru areas of Mbaise as well as the whole surrounding villages that constitute Owerri ebe iri embody in their rich treasuries of museum collections, the engaging religious and cultural history of the people.

The totems that are found in the hall of the museums as well as the murals that adorn the walls of the shrines convey the complex tapestry of Igbo religious life , belief , history and mannerism.

The museums in the first place are built on the instruction of fortune tellers, who are consulted by the villagers to explain mysterious happenings in the village. These mysterious happenings may be in the form of deaths, unexplainable sicknesses or other unusual things.

Following such consultations, the Dibia or fortune teller may divine that a particular god, especially , Amadioha has been aggrieved and therefore demands that the people erect an mbari, as a ritual museum of appeasement for it.

According to John Oparocha in his book, Mbari: Art as Sacrifice,” When the Mbari house is built, the people would have peace of mind because they have played their part. Besides, they believe that there would be prosperity in the town.”

However, Chike Ezimora in an essay also published in the above quoted book opines that Mbari,” in its simplest definition is a sacrifice.” According to him, “ In the old days, when the people were faced with a major crises like war, famine or infant mortality, they usually consulted a diviner. Often , they promised any of the gods,( Ala, the earth goddess, Durujiaku, god of wealth, Agwu nsi, the author of all troubles and leader of fortune tellers or Amadioha , god of thunder that if he removes the trouble, they would celebrate an mbari in his honour.”

However, there are significantly three fundamental things to take note of in the study of Mbari among the Igbo. First, the construction of Mbari. Two, the cultural cum religious totemic contents of Mbari and three, how the Mbari conceptual activity explains the Igbo theory of art.

According to late Nwoguala Nwachukwu, the Chief Priest of Ala shrine at Ezuhu Umuhu community of Aboh Mbaise, Imo State, the construction of an Mbari house , when ordained by the gods is not an all comers affair.

Being a prestigious project, which confers a lot of respect on the priest or priestess, whose shrine is to host the mbari, a select group of people are specially invited and conscripted into a privacy otherwise known as mgbede.

These people according to him, are not to be seen by any person through out the period that they build the Mbari. While at work, all their welfare and needs are provided by the community for which the Mbari construction addresses their plight.

According to Oparocha,” In the selection of ndi mgbe, the priest invites a dibia to do the selection. When he comes, a goat is killed as a sign of happy reception. After eating and drinking, the dibia starts his job with the priest. They walk from one village to another going from door to door starting with the priest…selecting men and women, old and young, at least one from each compound.”

In the newly constructed mud houses are sculpted different animals and gods including nguma, the security officer of Amadioha, tiger , monkeys, elephants, rabbits , snakes, water mermaids and gongs among other things.

These sculpted images represent all the instruments and media with which the god executes its anger or make visitations on the people. It is important to note also that both in the representation of the gods and the architects , who help to construct the Mbari, that there is always an unconscious gender sensitivity and balance.

According to Ezimora,” Not lacking in the representations and drawings are the myths and beliefs. There are illustrations of the thirteen lunar months, the four week days and the ancestors in the spirit world guarding their offspring.”

Continuing he added that “ other representations in an mbari museum include some animals and birds which are known to be messengers and mediators between man and gods.”Adding that “ some mode lings and designs depict the moral of the people. These are illustrations on the importance of honest living, respect for parents, child upbringing, hard work and industry.”

The Mbari as a cultural museum offers good understanding of Igbo cosmology and cosmogony. Besides helping to preserving the Igbo artistic and creative spirit, the museums within their different large murals and exhibition spaces also convey in very admiring terms the socio-political shifts that the host societies have undergone in the course of time.

This transitional shift can be seen in the kind of sculptural images that are represented in the Mbari houses: One now notices that some of the traditional gods, which act as traditional security officers like Nguma are now represented with images of police or Soldier wielding guns. Sometimes too, the figures are dressed in English styled dresses showing the assimilation of foreign cultural aesthetics and mannerisms. An mbari at the Amadioha shrine at Umulogho village in Eziala Enyiogugu, Mbaise embody these image types.

Seen largely as an artistic sacrifice of appeasement, this religio-creative activity despite its attendant celebratory depth also gives an insight into the Igbo theory of art. Going by what one sees in the content and form of Mbari, both as a religious and artistic concept, one would not but conclude that the Igbo do not believe in the philosophy of art for art sake. For the Igbo, the art that is meaningful is the art that has instructional functionality, such that mbari epitomizes.

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