Art and the sacred in Mumuyeland

Despite some field research, our knowledge of the sacred among the Mumuye remains embryonic. In all these acephalous groups with a binary and antinomic character, the va complex constitutes a highly varied semantic field in which certain aspects are accentuated according to the circumstances. Religious power is linked to the force contained in sacred objects of which only the elders are the guardians.


This gerontocracy is also based on a system of initiation stages that are indispensable for access to the status of ‘religious chief’. Long isolated geographically, the Mumuye resisted for centuries the attacks of Muslim invaders and later the British colonial authority and the activities of the various Christian missions. As a result, woodcarving among the Mumuye continued until the beginning of this century.
In 1970 Philip Fry published his essay on Mumuye statuary, whose analysis of the endogenous network has lost none of its value to this day. Jan Strybol tried to analyse the exogenous network of this wood sculpture on the basis of in situ observations. In this way he was able to document about forty statues and a few masks. On the other hand, he managed to identify more than twenty-five Mumuye artists as well as a specific type of statue as being limited to the Mumuye Kpugbong group.
During and after the Biafran war, hundreds of Mumuye sculptures were collected. Using information collected between 1970 and 1993, the author has demonstrated that a number of these works are not Mumuye but must be attributed to relic groups scattered in Mumuye territory.