Africa Direct
Africa Direct


Location: Eastern Nigeria, NW Cameroon
Population: 20,000

Arts: The Mambila are a small culture living in the mountainous region along the northern Cameroon/Nigeria border. Their art includes wild-looking standing figures used in the ancestor cult, as well as several stunning mask forms. The most famous of these masks is called "showa" and is described by Bacquart as a "mask in the shape of a dog's head." There are other totem animals represented, since most of these masks have horns. Masks are associated with a fertility cult, and dances employing them are held at the beginning of the crop season and at harvest. In addition, they are also brought out for burials of important villagers, and for initiations. In an early and comprehensive study of the Mambila in 1923, Major B. Glasson said of the mask: "The mask is worn on the head together with a full length robe of netting and cock's feathers, which covers the whole body. Masks are still made by a large number of people and are not used until they have been 'consecrated'. This is done by killing a chicken and pouring a small amount of its blood onto the mask. Some breast feathers are stuck to the mask with the blood. The main rites take place just before Guinea corn planting in June or early July. Each hamlet in the village has one or more masks, which are the personal possession of the cult leader and usually inherited. WARWAR village, for instance, has 11 masks. I cannot give a clear description of the actual rites. The holders seem to meet together at a center point of the village and dance. They then go round the various hamlets. The central rite seems to be an offering of corn beer to an upright stone, followed by pouring some into the ground. More beer is then drunk. Dancing is individual rather than group, and very violent. Each mask represents a different animal or natural force, and the appropriate dance does seem to mimic these. Anyone may actually dance in the mask, and usually it is not the owner, who is too old. The masks may not be seen by the women. It is said that if a woman sees one she will get sick, unless a special medicine is made, for which she will have to pay at least one chicken. The dancing and beer drinking may go on for several days." This lengthy excerpt was included because such an in-depth accounting of a ritual from this isolated part of Nigeria is extremely rare, and thus invaluable.

The Mambila craft highly-stylized standing figures associated with the worship of ancestors. These statues, known as "Tadep," are often quite bizarre, and thus have become eagerly sought-after by collectors. The spiritual life of a Mambila village revolves around the worship of ancestors, and the chief has the job of watching over them and seeing that they are sued appropriately. These objects would be hung in a mesh bag and housed in a special hut, until needed. The larger ancestor figures, "tadep," serve a protective function. The earliest ones were carved from the pith of the raffia palm. Most found today are carved from a light-weight wood, and are among the most distinctive and recognizable of African artistic forms. The figures often have a quizzical, even comical look on their faces, with a strange, squat body and peg-like projections arising from the head. There are a few other carvings that have occasionally been connected with the Mambila, but the remote area from which these pieces come makes attribution of these minor forms speculative at best. For such a small culture, the art of the Mambila has achieved a surprising amount of notoriety.

History: The Mambila are thought be from the original Bantu stock, and might have been in the same general area for perhaps 2000 years, as the bulk of Bantu peoples split, spreading north and south over much of Africa. They moved a bit to the south during the Muslim Fulani cavalry invasions of the 17th and 18th centuries, but avoided the cultural disruption experienced by so many groups, probably because the Fulani found so little of value in the area.


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