Current conversations on the relationship between colonial history and Indigenous art often focus on the physical repatriation of extant artifacts, as seen in a recent wave of museums returning Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Less frequently, however, do we hear about the art forms that became extinct due to destructive colonial forces.
One such art form, the practice of building Mbari ritual houses in Southeast Nigeria, had its life cycle cut short by the brutal Nigerian/Biafran Civil War. While some might be aware of the 1960s Mbari artist club formed in Nigeria, which hosted prominent figures such as Chinua Achebe and Jacob Lawrence, few know about the original Mbari houses from which this club derived its name. By taking a closer look at the history of Mbari houses and their influence on modern art globally, it becomes clear that their extinction is part of a longer legacy of colonial and postcolonial violence that creates an irreversible loss of cultural traditions.
British colonial officers first documented Mbari houses in the early 20th century, but Herbert M. Cole did the most crucial fieldwork, research, and documentation on the extraordinary houses in the 1960s. While no two Mbari are exactly alike, there are fundamental similarities. Always an expansive, roofed structure, Mbari have a rectangular perimeter supporting a roof that goes beyond the four corner pillars in an open-house plan. Mbari were constructed with anthill clay as the primary building material, and once built, beautifully repeating geometric patterns were painted across the walls and pillars, which have an organic form. The houses were typically filled with expressive figures in a hierarchy specific to Igbo beliefs and featured deities. These figures had similar formal elements: exaggerated necks and heads, long limbs without muscle, and colorfully painted, making each figure beautifully unique sculptural forms.
Mbari were made in response to a sequence of negative supernatural signs in the Owerri community, such as a natural catastrophe. Priests would then determine that a Mbari house needed to be erected in dedication to the earth goddess, Ala, the most important figure in Igbo cosmology, to prevent further disasters. Constructed from anthill clay, Mbari are meant to naturally decay into the ground over time as a gesture of respect towards Ala, being consumed by her and thus appeasing her.
While Mbari were made under the direction of one central artist, their complex production was a communal effort. Multiple community members were selected through divination and spent one to two years working on the houses. The workers collectively observed intensive rituals and exclusively lived in the construction area during the building. Those not chosen to work still made essential religious patronage through donations to help produce the houses as a collective endeavor.
The evolving and reflective nature of Mbari is one of its most striking visual qualities. Many of the sculptures took inspiration from contemporary life, not just deities of the indigenous Owerri Igbo belief system. In the 1960s, after independence from Britain, these sculptural forms included vibrant depictions of banks, automobiles, radios, telephones, offices, uniformed soldiers, and maternity clinics, reflecting modernization and Nigeria’s recent independence. The visual evolution was not the only change Mbari houses faced during post-independence: The structures grew smaller in their literal size and scale of production. Indigenous practices were waning, and Christianity and modern labor industries had pushed the typical workforce away.
The houses’ natural decline accelerated towards a sharp conclusion after the Nigerian/Biafran Civil war. The conflict grew out of tense post-independence political and religious differences between Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups: the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba to the southwest, and the Igbo to the southeast where Mbari houses were made. In October 1966, thousands of Igbo were killed indiscriminately in the north and southwest over fear of Igbo dominance after a failed coup.
Two million refugees fled back to Igboland, and on May 30, 1967, the Igbo region seceded to create the independent Republic of Biafra. The declaration of independence was viewed as a state of rebellion by the Nigerian government, and they declared war. The conflict would last for three years and led to the deaths of between 500,000 and two million people in Biafra, primarily due to starvation.
The war itself was shaped by foreign influence. As one of the most economically useful ex-colonies for the United Kingdom, Nigeria maintaining control of Biafra was in Britain’s best interests. The United Africa Company, a subsidiary of Unilever, the leading UK consumer goods company, dominated Nigerian trade, and the British bought oil very cheaply from Nigeria in the oil-rich Southeast. Biafra was an economic hindrance to Britain because they had no intention of continuing this economic subservience. As a result, Nigeria received a steady supply of state-of-the-art weapons and support from Britain to ensure that their financial investments were safe. Meanwhile, Biafra was given little to no aid, with no European state recognizing it as a country.
The impact of the war, inflected by the dominating international interests formed during Britain’s colonial rule, defines Mbari’s rapid postcolonial extinction in Nigeria. The Owerri region was in the middle of this war zone and became the last stronghold for Biafra, enduring conflict and famine during and after the war. As a result, religious patronage, a crucial part of the production of Mbari houses, had nearly completely faded. According to Herbert M. Cole, who traveled back to Owerri after the war, older worshipers and artists who had learned the art of Mbari had died or were beset with hunger and loss of property.
As the Mbari house tradition waned after the war, modernism in Nigeria gained prominence, detailed in Chika Okeke-Agulu’s book Postcolonial Modernism. In 1961, Ulli Beier, the co-founder of the influential literary magazine Black Orpheus, and a group of Nigerian writers and artists founded the Mbari Artists and Writers Club in Ibadan. Chinua Achebe named the club after the Owerri Igbo Mbari ritual houses, explaining that “Mbari was a celebration, through art, of the world and of the life lived in it.”
Like the houses, the artists’ club was a communal space located in a restaurant and courtyard, where discussion, performances, and art exhibitions took place. The club also maintained a cosmopolitan identity, shown in its presentation of foreign artists. This included shows from the Die Brücke artist Karl Schmidt Rottluff, the American figurative artist Jacob Lawrence, the Japanese printmaker Naoko Matsubara, and the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El Salahi.
The global reach allowed the Mbari club to flourish in a transnational exchange of art and ideas. Jacob Lawrence’s famous 1962 exhibition at Mbari Ibadan presented his Migration series, one of the artist’s most celebrated works, depicting the massive relocation of one million African Americans from Jim Crow South to the North. Lawrence did not just exhibit work in Ibadan, though. On his second visit to Nigeria in 1964, he produced at least eight tempera works that colorfully represented his impression of Nigeria through subjects seen in Street to Mbari, (1964) portraying a bustling street leading to the Mbari club. The club’s exhibition program ended in 1966, and while other Mbari clubs were created in Nigeria, none are presently active. However, the effects of the club’s cross-pollination were palpable for local and global artists and writers globally who would shape modern art in Africa after the war.
The Mbari houses of the Owerri Igbo did not experience the same growth and vitality as the artists from the Mbari club. In the 1970s, the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture in Jos, located 298 miles north of Owerri, commissioned a Mbari house for display. However, this museum version of the Mbari had little in common with the original structures. It was made with concrete, a material whose permanence is antithetical to Mbari. Ala, the deity for whom Mbari is made, was not even depicted. The Nigerian artist selected was also not practiced in the tradition of Mbari house making, and no rituals were observed during its creation. As Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie points out in an issue of African Arts, this structure is “a contemporary art ensemble that appropriates the form of Mbari, in much the same manner that Picasso appropriated the African mask form” and thus embodies the true end of Mbari.
Although the tradition of Mbari houses can never be revived, their rich history and broader influence on modernism in Africa is profound, which is signified poetically by Achebe choosing the name Mbari for the artist clubs. Since Mbari only survives through archival material, it’s essential to study and present these records with new interpretations within the colonial and postcolonial conditions they existed. By highlighting these aspects of art history that could otherwise go unrecognized, we create opportunities to acknowledge traumatic histories that have no means of reconciling themselves. Of equal importance, we also celebrate influential art forms that once embodied the communal and creative spirit of groups across the world.