Monday, 12 August 2013

Different interpretations of Mbari

Prof Onobrakpeya
Mbari, in many quarters including creative and literary domains means different things to different people. This name that originated from a place in Imo State has been interpreted by many people to mean different things, even beyond Nigeria.
Today, there are Mbari artists, Mbari-Mbayo artists, Mbari book, Mbari supporters’ club and writers club, a cultural centre, an arts gallery and Mbari Mbayo School.
The name, Mbari, according to creative icon and print maker, Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya, became a popular name in Nigeria after a German scholar, linguist, editor and writer, Ulli Beier got the name from a workshop in Imo State, southeast, Nigeria and became fascinated with it. “When he went back to southwest, he started Mbari club in Ibadan, then the name spread.
Recalled that dramatist, Late Duro Ladipo (1931–1978) of ‘Oba-Koso‘ fame, co-founded the Mbari-Mbayo Artists and Writers Club together with Beier. He became influenced by Beier and later replicated the club in Osogbo, Osun State to the extent that it became the foremost group for promoting upcoming artists in Osogbo.
“As time went on, Ladipo changed the name to Mbari Mbayo (If you see, you will be happy) in Oshogbo where it was modified to have Mbayo in it so that it would be accepted by the Yoruba.  It became a cultural centre, an arts gallery and a meeting point for young artists who wanted to develop their talents. So Mbari travelled from Imo State to Ibadan and Osogbo,” Onobrakpeya said.
Onobrakpeya also attributed his vocation as a printmaker to the exposure he got at Beier's Mbari Mbayo workshop which has inspired the Harmattan Workshop that he runs to nurture artists in Delta State.  
Similarly, Mbari Mbayo was a platform on which many great  Nigerian  writers  and  playwrights including  Wole Soyinka,  D.O. Fagunwa, Demas Nwoko, J.P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo and so on honed their skills.
The man who pioneered the development of literature, drama and poetry in Nigeria, Beier came to Nigeria in 1950 with an Austrian artist, Late Susanne Wenger. He joined the Extra Mural Studies Department at the University College Ibadan, now known as University of Ibadan and visited several Yoruba towns and villages and organized classes for people. He settled in Osogbo in 1958 after he left Ede and Ilobu.
The famous scholar with a passion for arts and culture of the Yorubas published books on Yoruba festivals and religion and some of his books are ‘Black Orpheus: An Anthology of New African and Afro-American Stories’, Thirty Years of Oshogbo Art, Iwalewa House, Bayreuth’ and ‘A Year of Sacred Festivals in One Yoruba Town, Nigeria Magazine, Marina, Lagos, Nigeria’.
He died in his residence in Annandale, Sydney, Australia on Sunday April 3, 2011 at the age of 88 years after a protracted illness. Though he has departed mother earth, the movement, phenomenon and idea, Mbari he introduced is still spreading across the globe.
Presently, there is a school called Mbari Mbayo School, located at Hussey Street, (near WAEC), Yaba, Lagos. It was founded by Mrs. Mary Ajibola Aiyegbusi about 25years years ago.
It seems that name is associated with success, Daily Newswatch gathered that the school which nurtures and give qualitative education to students is one of the best schools in Nigeria. Its proprietress, while answering a question by a medium recently, revealed the secret behind the success of the school by saying that “what seemed like a mere wishful thinking has grown to be a force to reckon with.”
Abroad, there is an acronym, MBARI - The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research
Institute, an oceanographic research centre that promotes a peer relationship between engineers and scientists. This may not have any connection with the Nigerian Mbari, but there is a not-for-profit organisation/institute called Mbari Institute
of Contemporary African Art (MCAA) in Washington DC, United States of America founded by Mimi Wolford.
Asked what Mbari means in the US, Wolford smiled and said that she got the name from ‘Mbari Mbayo,’ which means “If you see, you will be happy” in Oshogbo, Nigeria .
In her words: “To me, Mbari means a continuation of creativity which art represents,” Mimi said.
The veteran artist who hailed from a tradition of artists also traced her passion for art from her parents, Richard Wolford and Jean Kennedy, who were involved in the world of art from early age and established Mbari Art in 1970 to promote cultural exchange by collecting works from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the U.S. Over the years, Mbari Art has arranged over 100 exhibitions.
Mimi said, “My parents were apprentices under architect Frank Lloyd Wright. One of their works a house in Southern California is now a historic location in Highland Park, Los Angeles.”
According to her, while living in Lagos from 1961, during her parents’ foreign service for seven years in Nigeria, they opened their home every Thursday afternoon to exhibit the works of Osogbo artists and also worked with Onobrakpeya, developing a deep-etching technique.
She pointed out that Nigeria’s contemporary artists are doing good jobs which are being appreciated in America. She also organises cultural events like drama and art exhibitions “to celebrate African female artists” on a regular basis. After she left Nigeria in 1969, her first visit to Nigeria was this year, courtesy of the U.S. embassy in Nigeria.
During her visit, she was a special guest at a three-day event at Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, including workshops in Abuja and Oshogbo. She was also a guest speaker at a lecture in June titled: “Mbari Art, Now and Then,” organised by Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos. She also went to the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan and Oshogbo, home of art and culture. One may be right to call her an art ambassador as she left a footprint when she visited Nigeria.
Mimi founded MICAA, a multi-disciplinary organization to also educate the public, give visibility to African artists, promote and publish research and act as a permanent repository for the works of contemporary African artists, books, publications and related matters. “We arranged over 40 solo and group shows, offering opportunities to emerging African artists, especially those who have not had exposure in the United States,” Mimi said.
Recently featured artists include Isaac Ojo, Peju Layiwola, Yinka Adeyemi and Wole Lagunju of Nigeria, Hamid Kachmar of Morocco, Sane Wadu of Kenya, Rackie Dianka and Abdoulaye Ndoye of Senegal; Sanaa Gateja of Uganda and Bethel Aniaku of Togo.
Other better known international artists from Africa such as Twins Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimaoh and Bruce Onobrakpeya of Nigeria and Valente Malangatana of Mozambique have also been exhibited in MICAA. 
In the nearest future, the institute, according to Wolford, “would be a museum with collection of works of artworks by Nigerian and other African artists, spanning over 50 years.”
A lot of Nigerians celebrated the name Mbari when literary icon, novelist and social critic, Prof. Chinua Achebe died to the extent that they, on a daily basis, wrote on a social media that “Mbari is silent.” This can be attributed to the fact that Achebe gained an appreciation for Mbari, a traditional art form which seeks to invoke gods’ protection through symbolic sacrifices in the form of sculpture and collage in Nekede, Imo State when he was living with his elder brother, John who was teaching in a school there.
It would be recalled that Achebe, in his essay on Mbari said, "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.”
Originally, there is Mbari Cultural Centre, also regarded as a home for gods and goddesses. Mbari is a visual art form revered by Owerri people in Imo State, Nigeria with a lot of a sacred house constructed as a propitiatory rite.
History also has it that Mbari houses of the Owerri-Igbo, which are large opened-sided square planned shelters contain many life-sized, painted figures (sculpted in mud to appease the deity and the earth goddess, with other deities of thunder and water. Other sculptures are of officials, craftsmen, foreigners (mainly Europeans), animals, legendary creatures and ancestors. Mbari houses take years to build and building them is regarded as sacred. A ceremony is performed within the structure for a gathering of town leaders. After the ritual is complete, going in or even looking at the Mbari house is considered taboo. The building was not maintained and decayed in the elements.
In his review, Art and Life Among the Owerri Igbo, Art historian Herbert M. Cole (Indiana University Press, 1982, Art 261 pages), said “one of the most fascinating artistic phenomena in tropical Africa, Mbari houses are little known outside Igboland.”
Drawing from his extensive research in eastern Nigeria to produce a study of this art form, Cole describes the building of Mbari mud house to honour the gods, a process rich in tradition and ritual, marked by body painting, drumming, dancing, singing and chanting. He affirmed that “Mbari houses are not as isolated works of art but as monuments growing out of, and expressive of the values and beliefs of Owerri Igbo culture.”
Mbari, having gained many meanings will remain a name that future generations who are interested in literary and visual arts may institutionalised and explored further to promote art and culture in Nigeria.

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