Mbembe, Bembe, and the Ikoro.

As with most endeavors, Collecting African Tribal Art is fraught with instances of disappointment, and joy. The Metropolitan Museum recently (091615) had an exhibition on Mbembe Art (which I missed), but fortunately the following piece (acquired in 2010) will continue to be on display in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing’s survey of sub-Saharan art. Additionally the article “Silenced Mbembe Muses” provides ample analysis of the Mbembe corpus (an amazing read, and chock-full of pictures).

[E1] Maternity Figure: Seated Mother and Child. Mbembe

[E1] Maternity Figure: Seated Mother and Child. Mbembe

The Mbembe and the Bembe are African tribes located in Nigeria, and the Congo respectively.

[E1] Mbembe location

[E2] Mbembe location

Historically the Mbembe used the Ikoro drum (massive slit drum) which could be heard as far as 10 kilometers away. This Mbembe art form is another example of the prodigious art present in the Three Rivers region (Niger, Benue, and Cross).

“Given the ikoro’s importance and scale, the creative process was especially demanding. An elaborate ritual celebration preceded the selection and cutting of the tree from which the log for the drum was hewn. Hollowing and carving took weeks or months, over the course of which the artist’s tools required daily refortification by the associated deity. Each work was customized to feature a sculptural program of figurative or animal imagery at one or both ends of the slit gong’s cylindrical body. The human subjects were typically a nurturing maternity figure or a fierce male warrior brandishing weaponry and a trophy head.”[1]

[E3] Mbembe Exhibition 1974

[E3] Mbembe Exhibition 1974

“Mbembe chiefs oversaw annual tributes to the founder of their village’s lineage. Such celebrations took place in a large structure where all men who had proven themselves as warriors gathered. A monumental sacred drum, ten to thirteen feet long and adorned with representations of the founding couple, was the principal feature of this setting. The female subject depicted was the spouse who had given birth to the lineage’s first male descendant. Young men demonstrated their worthiness by placing before the drum, which served as a shrine, the severed head of an enemy they had slain. British colonial interdictions of such devotional practices contributed to the decline and gradual abandonment of these village sanctuaries.”[1]

[1] “Silenced Mbembe Muses”: Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 48 (2013)
[E1] Maternity Figure: Seated Mother and Child. Mbembe[/caption] peoples; Ewayon ̆ River region, Cross River Province, Nigeria, 15th–17th century. Wood, pigment, resin, nails, H. 421⁄2 in. (108 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, 2010 and 2008 Benefit Funds, Laura G. and James J. Ross, David and Holly Ross, Noah-Sadie K. Wachtel Foundation Inc. and Mrs. Howard J. Barnet Gifts, 2010 (2010.256). Photograph: The Photograph Studio, MMA
[E2] Map showing the Mbembe region. From Kamer 1974. © Hélène Kamer
[E3] Installation view, “Ancêtres M’Bembé,” Galerie Kamer, Paris, 1974. ©!Hélène Kamer
exhibition link

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