The Bush is a collection of visuals and designs inspired and based upon the culture of Igboland. The illustrations within depict the folktales, tradition, beauty, and magic of the land and it's people. My people. Growing up in a Nigerian household and taking trips to our native village of Nnewi as a child, I was always exposed to the remnants of these customs but I never knew about their origins. With the the colonization of the Nigerian people and the adoption of Christianity, so much of our rich ancestral history has been destroyed and forgotten. The Bush is meant to create a place for these forgotten stories to come to life through my own imaginings.
Igbo Spirituality is comprised of a pantheon of spirits with each deity governing their own aspect of life. Some deities can be considered more prominent and influential than others but all of them together make up the one high God, Chineke. Creator of all things...
Ala is the female Alusi (deity) of the earth, morality, fertility, and creativity. She is the most important Alusi in the Igbo pantheon. Ala rules over the underworld and holds deceased ancestors in her womb.
Spirits can appear in many forms. Their depictions vary widely and their appearance is largely determined by the artist's preferred interpretation. However, their distinction is most notably expressed in elaborate headdresses or masks.
Amadioha is the Alusi of justice who speaks through thunder, and strikes with lightning. Metaphysically, Amadioha represents the collective will of the people. Anyanwu is the Igbo goddess of the sun and a divine source of natural life. She is attributed to the sun because of its life giving attributes. Ekwensu is the Alusi of bargains and the tortoise. He is crafty at trade and negotiations but also known for inciting mischief and violence. Ikenga is a two-faced and horned Alusi, that symbolizes the life and will of the individual. An Ikenga figurine is physically kept in ones household, and holds one's Chi (personal god), Ndichie (ancestors), and ike (power). Some people pay homage to greater deities to ensure good fortune in certain areas of Igbo society while other, lesser deities, are held responsible for certain unexplainable happenings.
for example, is an Alusi of divination that exemplifies the Igbo's strong belief in the God's dealings with human minds. Agwu is capable of confusing the clearest reasoner as well as granting clarity to the most troubled mind. Agwu is most feared by Dibia, the mystic mediators between the spirit and human world. Dibia are taught ritual sacrifices that they must make to Agwu at the beginning of every divination session. Agwu is thus the patron deity of diviners. There is a saying that goes
" You are being raised by Agwu" which is usually said to children who are given extraordinary talent or exceptional skill at something. A divine call awaits a child of Agwu and a failure to listen to this call results in terrible misfortune.
An ogbanje is an evil spirit that would deliberately plague a family with misfortune. Its literal translation in the Igbo language is
"children who come and go".
Twins, were seen as abominations and one was cast into the bush so that the God's would determine it's fate. ironically enough- Nigeria produces the highest rate of twins in the world.
It was believed that within a certain amount of time from birth (usually not past puberty), the ogbanje would deliberately die and then come back and repeat the cycle causing the family grief.
The dead child would be cut or mutilated so that they would not return. Some ogbanje, however, were said to return, bearing the physical scars of the mutilation.
Spirits can come in many forms and can bear the characteristics of many common animals in the region. Lesser spirits like these can exist without much reason and tend to cause misfortune or be the cause of unexplainable happenings. They dwell in the bush and are rarely happened upon. During parties however, costumes are made to represent these spirits of many shapes and sizes.
WHERE SPIRITS LIVE
Spirits are said to be most active during the night.
When the sun goes down, they take to the air and fly above our heads. You shouldn't do certain things at night as to not attract spirits to you. Like whistling for example or walking into the bush alone at night. They are connected to the natural world so the bush is the place you will most likely have a spiritual encounter.
SPIRITS & POSSESSION Spirits are usually thought to be the source of any mental health or behavioral issues that may manifest in humans. As mentioned with the Alusi Agwu, unexplainable confusion can be sowed in the mind of an individual depending on Agwu's will or that individuals refusal to answer a divine call. Ritual, Prayer and Sacrifice are about the only things capable of granting clarity to the troubled mind. In other instances, the individual could be cursed by someone else. A mind that is weak and lacking in discipline is more susceptible to these spiritual attacks.
The origin of parties and dance can be attributed to the spirits. There is a story of a hunter who traveled deep into the forest and stumbled upon a big clearing .The Hunter figured something must happen here for there to be such a large clearing in the middle of the forest so he waited in the brush until it was night-time. One by one, spirits began to appear in the clearing bringing lights, music and food. They moved in a way the hunter had never seen before. They were dancing. The hunter watched these spirits and was in awe at their freedom and expression of life. He decided to go home and show his family the things he learned from watching the spirits. He began to teach his children how to dance and they even began to create their own dance moves. Ever since then, humans would have gatherings and parties where they would eat plenty of food, sing plenty of songs, and dance together.
The Bush is described by the large and vast amount of land uninhabited by humans and still very dangerous to venture into alone. There are animals and creatures of many kinds and of course, most of all there are spirits. Southeastern Nigeria, where most Igbo live, is filled with rain forest, rivers and mountains. Caves, rivers, waterfalls, mountains, and great trees- these are all places where spirits can live.
Rituals and spiritual practice are performed in these natural locations. Where the Gods and spirits are present and the spiritual energy is most powerful. There are many rivers that flow through Igboland as well as creatures and deities that govern the life-giving water sources.
Beautiful, seductive, powerful, and fearsome—that is Mami Wata, a water spirit usually represented as a snake charmer or a mermaid. She is commonly associated with health, wealth, love, and good fortune. She is a prominent deity celebrated by river and sea-dwelling Igbos. But her influence has reached most parts of the African Diaspora and similar mermaid-like figures are included in various African lore. Mami Wata's popularity and pervasive influence is probably due to her ability to grant financial prosperity. She is seen usually with a python ( A very common animal among the Igbos and one that is considered to be highly spiritual)wrapped around her. Although her appearance in a river can grant great fortune, it can also mean great danger for whoever witnesses her.
The land that was once filled with vast rain-forests has dwindled dramatically in the years following colonization. As these spiritual beliefs and practices were replaced with Christianity and other western concepts, the respect for the land also dwindled and was replaced with consumption of rich natural resources to accommodate global trade.
The natural landscapes that characterize Nigeria widely vary. There are dry, arid plains in the north and lush, dense rain-forests in the south. The land is filled with rolling mountain chains and unique geological structures. Enormous natural monoliths that can stand over 900 feet tall and rich, red soil.
Mbari houses are large, open-sided, and square-planned shelters that contain many life-size, painted figures sculpted with mud and painted intricately. Mbari houses are made as a gift to Ala, as a way to acknowledge her charitable and overarching presence. Sometimes, however, other gods are represented along with Ala in the structure. Other sculptures which could be included are of officials, craftsmen, foreigners, animals, legendary creatures and ancestors. The construction of an Mbari would be executed by the spiritual leaders in the community and a ritual would usually take place in the opening of the Mbari gallery. After the rituals were performed and the Mbari viewed, it would be abandoned and left to the elements. Returning to it would be seen as disrespectful. This practice is meant to honour and reflect the impermanence of life and represent art as spontaneous and ever-changing.
Mbari's were adorned with intricate symbols and patterns. commonly geometric and repetitive but still possessing organic, hand-painted drawings of natural scenes. They would represent the cosmos and the natural world. The patterns were meant to reflect the nature of Ala's creation.
Scarification was a
common form of physical decoration through cutting the skin in different patterns and letting the design scar to create a permanent mark. Some scarification marks are intended to indicate the person's family or patronage to a specific deity. These patterns and symbols were also used to adorn the faces and bodies of Igbo people. During festivals and parties painting the skin with marks similar tot he ones painted on Mbari figurines was popular.
The artists that were responsible for sculpting were quite competitive and aimed to make each Mbari better than the last Mbari or a competing villages Mbari. The artist would try and follow the traditional styles that characterize all Mbari but personal stylistic expression was still encouraged. The entire process was very spiritually involved and those ( mostly women) who would go and build the Mbari's were called spirit workers. They would immerse themselves in their work for months until the Mbari was complete and the world could see their creations.
A Glimpse into life in a traditional village. Igbos are very strong believers in making ones own destiny. You could be born a poor man but that doesn't mean you have to die as one. Many people owned their own businesses and supported each-other's trades.
The traditional Igbo house structure was predominantly round-wall mud houses (ulo aja oto) with thatched roofs (aju or atani).
There was also no central ruling system. Anyone could build wealth and become a 'King' it was not a birthright or heavenly mandate. The people decided who would represent them.
was encouraged through-out Nigerian society and hairdressing was considered an elaborate and expressive art form. Different regions coined different styles. Intricate and colourful textiles that featured geometric patterns are also very popular.
Parties and festivals where elaborate masquerade was performed, depicted Mmuo, (spirits, ancestors, and representations of deities.) in their costumed glory. Mmuo would be brought to life through the performers costume and dance.
Storytelling and the tradition of oration is one of the most important aspects of Igbo culture. Like a lot of cultures around the world, stories and information were passed down through word of mouth. Not only was storytelling a major source of entertainment-but a way for people to explain the world around them. Where does thunder and lighting come from? Why does the Tortoise live under the tie-tie palm? These tales paint a colorful picture of what Igbo people value and how they think.
Being able to tell a good story was considered a great talent. those who were skilled were revered while those who weren't were ignored. Usually the story teller would prompt a story by gathering people and starting a chant. The audience, if they were responsive to the storyteller's skill, would become enthusiastic and participate in the orator's chant. This would let the story teller know that they will be well-recieved and can now commence the story.
Here are some quick-tellings of some common Igbo Folktales.
How The Tortoise Got His Bumpy Shell A long time ago, when the animals could still talk, there was a famine in the land. Many of the animals were suffering and dying one by one. The Tortoise would not go down without a fight. He was the most cunning of all the animals and was determined to find some food for himself and his family. One day, the Tortoise observed that the birds in the kingdom were not starving like everyone else. He made it his business to find out what their secret was. They explained to him that the people of the Sky were holding feasts for those who could fly. The Tortoise told the birds that if they helped him get to the Sky, he would be their spokesperson and help them get more food. Each bird would contribute a few feathers to Tortoise until he had enough feathers to make wings that would allow him to fly. When they all got to the Sky, they were given a grand welcome. Since Tortoise had the most unique and colorful plumage, the Sky people immediately thought that Tortoise was their chief. When they served the food to their guests, they served Tortoise first, as a result. The birds were not pleased with that. When it was time to go, all the birds took back their feathers and left Tortoise stranded. He told eagle that he wants to jump down and to tell his wife on the ground to bring out all the soft things. Eagle decided to tell the wife to bring out all the hard things instead. So when Tortoise jumped down from the sky he landed on his shell and it broke into many pieces. His wife tried to glue it back together but it was no longer smooth. Ever since then the tortoise would have a very bumpy shell.
The King and The Cock's Daughter King Effiom, who was very fond of fine women, had heard of how beautiful the Cock's daughter was and decided to make her his new wife. She soon became the king's most beloved wife because of her pleasant nature. This made the other wives very jealous. They figured because she was the Cock's daughter that she would not be able to resist corn. So during a great party, when everyone came to the palace, the wives threw corn into the middle of the court. The Cock's daughter began to peck at the corn like a hen! All of the King's visitors were astonished at her behavior and the King was very angry. He sent the Cock's daughter away even though he loved her very much. He died the following year from a broken heart. The people of the town then passed a law that said no one should marry a bird or any animal for that matter.
Affiong and the Skull There once lived a young woman named Affiong, whose beauty was beyond belief. All the young men in the country wanted to marry her on account of her beauty; but she refused all of them despite her parent's pleas. She refused to marry anyone unless they were as fine as she. There Skull that lived in the spirit land, heard of Affiong's beauty and decided he would like to posses her. From one friend he borrowed a good head, from another he borrowed strong arms. He did this until he became the finest specimen of manhood. He traveled to Affiong's village and charmed her with his appearance. She married him and then soon left to go and live in her new husbands land. When they re-entered the spirit land, the Skull's friends came and demanded he return to them what he borrowed. Soon, the skull's true form was revealed in all it's ugliness. Affiong was horrified but forbidden from leaving. The skull took her to his home where his old frail mother was living. Affiong had helped the Skull's mother by bringing her food and taking care of her. The Skull's mother was so touched by her kindness that she called a great wind to come and take Affiong safely home. When Affiong returned to her village she married the man her father chose right away and later had many children.
My first glimpse of the bush was during a family road-trip in Nigeria as a small child. I saw the mountains and forests and I thought they were so beautiful and magical-looking. My imagination ran wild with the different types of creatures that could live there and the different kinds of adventures we could go on if we ventured into the bush. My curiosity and love for my culture has only ever grown since then, as I learned more and more through reading and listening to my family stories. Through this book, I can hopefully share some of that magic that has inspired me throughout my life. This collection of illustrations is only a small fraction of what my Igbo heritage has to offer through my own interpretation. It is a rich, unique and adaptive, culture that still thrives even today. I hope that my work has shown even a little bit of that magic. Thank you.
Briana Mukodiri Uchendu