BY Stephen Nartey, 1:02pm October 26, 2022,

The story of the epic Mbembe art about kings asking to be buried with their severed heads

Warriors and Mothers/Photo credit: Met Museum

When the Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art sculpture came up for exhibition in the 1970s, little attention was paid to it because it was from Africa. Fifty years down the line, it has become the most sought-after art in the United States and Europe, as reported by the New York Times. 

This is because the story it tells is unique. Its details only speak to originality and rareness. The warriors and mothers were carved between the 17th and 19thcentury. The seated images of mothers taking care of their children and fearless warriors standing guard have an untold tale of poetry in their bosom. 

In the Mbembe culture, warriors and mothers are part of the drums which play a key role in the rituals and spiritual life of the people, according to the Met Museum. The sculpture is the handiwork of Mbembe chief carvers from Nigeria and has been preserved over the years. 

It is not in doubt the finesse and authenticity of the art caught the attention of some scholars the first time it was exhibited in 1974 at a gallery in Paris. But, how it came to Paris is one of a story shrouded in mystery. According to the New York Times, the Warriors and Mothers were first presented to a collector and gallery owner, Helene Kamer, by a Malian dealer in 1972. 

The dealer would not say where he got the sculptures, but, assured that there were many more where he brought the first set of Mbembe Art. In 1973, the Malian dealer brought additional 12 figures of the Warriors and Mothers.

The Mbembe people, with the advent of colonialism, had abandoned the trade of carving the sculpture. The remaining relics were more or less rusting away when it was brought to Paris. When it came up for exhibition in Paris, many of the African art devotees were taken aback by the uniqueness of the sculpture.

The art sold at an appreciable price making Kamer a fortune. However, all attempts to trace the Malian dealer proved futile. All the art world had of the Warriors and Mothers sculpture were the 14 figures. Subsequent replica sculptures that came to the market were poorly designed and in bad shape.

The drums which accompany the sculpture are believed to have in-depth cultural and social significance to the Mbembe tribesmen. The drums are used to announce the deaths of its inhabitants as well as important social events such as a festival or call to war. The drums are also believed to call the spirits of the departed from the ancestral world in times of calamity.

The Warriors and Mothers relics served as a bridge between the past and present and reinforced the virtues of heroism and rebirth after death. One of the stories of a male figure, three feet tall with an aggressive look and decapitated head sculpture of the Warriors and Mothers which sits at the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing tells a story of Mbembe chief Appiah, who built a village which bears his name. The people believe that he protects them and in times of battle, the expectation is for the warriors of Mbembe to severe the head of their enemy.

In the history of the Mbembe art, no sculpture looks alike. While one has its head decapitated, another has its head tilting like a bowling ball on one knee and leaning backward.

Oral history says that these sculptures represent local chiefs who asked for their head to be cut from their body and buried with them so that future generations will know the sacrifices that were made for their comfort today.

The Mbembe female carrying a child on their lap represents a throne of wisdom and chasteness of the women. Many states have interpreted the sculpture to mean different things in their culture. In all, it is expected the child will lead an upright life reminiscent of the training instilled in them by the mother.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 26, 2022


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