“Once every so often, and in her absolute discretion, this goddess would instruct the community through divination to build a home of images in her honour. The diviner would travel through the village and knock on the doors of those chosen by Ana for her work. These chosen people were then blessed and separated from the larger community in a ritual with more than a passing resemblance to their own death and funeral. Thereafter, they moved into the forest and, behind and high fence and under the instruction and supervision of master artists and craftsmen, they constructed a temple of art.
Architecturally, it was a simple structure, a stage formed by three high walls supporting a peaked roof; but in place of a flat floor you had a deck of steps running from one wall to the other and rising almost to the roof at the back wall. This auditorium was then filled to the brim with sculptures in molded earth and clay, and the walls painted with murals in white, black, yellow, and green. The sculptures were arranged in appropriate postures on the steps. At the centre of the front row sat the earth goddess herself, a child on her left knee ad a raised sword in her right hand. She is other and judge.
When all was ready, after months, or sometimes even years, of preparation, the makers of mbari, who has been working in complete seclusion, sent wod to the larger community. A day was chosen for the unveiling and celebration of the work with music and dancing and feasting in front of the house of mbari.
I used the words “stage” and “auditorium” to describe the mbari house; let me explain. Indeed, the
two side walls and the back wall encompassed a stage of sorts, comprising sculptures and paintings as actors wo, after long rehearsals, are ready to perform a new celebration of art, a command performance of the earth goddess for the people assembled. But I believe the event does invite a second way of apprehension, in which the roles of stage and audience are reversed and those still and silent dignitaries of molded earth seated on the steps, and the paintings on the walls of the royal pavilion, became the spectators, and the world below a lively stage.
Mbari extends the view, opens it out to meanings beyond the mere remembering of blessings or happy events; it deliberately sets out to include other experiences – indeed, all significant encounters which man has in his journey through life, especially new, unaccustomed, and thus potentially threatening encounters.
For example, when Europe made its appearance in Igbo society out of travellers tales into the concrete and alarming shape of the domineering district officer, the artists of mbari quickly gave him a seat among the molded figures, complete with his peaked helmet and pipe. Sometimes, they even made room of his iron horse, or bicycle, and his naïve police orderly. To the Igbo mentality, art must, among other uses, provide a means to domesticate that which is wild; it must act like the lightning conductor which arrests destructive electrical potential and channels them harmlessly to earth. The Ogbo insist that any presence which Is ignored, denigrated, denied acknowledgement and celebration, can become a focus for anxiety and disruption. To them, celebration is the acknowledgement, not the welcoming, of a presence. It is the courtesy of giving to everybody his due.
Therefore the celebration of mbari was no blind adoration of a perfect world or even a good world. It was an acknowledgement of the world as these particular inhabitants perceived it in reality, in their dreams and their imagination. The white district officer was obviously not a matter for laughing or dancing. But he was not alone in that. Consider another disquieting presence: a man whose body was covered from head to toe with the spots of smallpox, a disease so dreaded that it was deified and was alluded to only in quiet, deferential tones of appeasement; it was called the Decorator of its victims, not their killer. As for the woman depicted in copulation with a dog, was there much to choose, as oddities go, between her and white man?”