The art of the Mambila people is very specific and has an expressionist consonance revealed through an exaggeration of forms, an influence coming from their neighbours in Cameroon and in particular from Grassland. The Mambila created statues of ancestors, objects of protection, masks and musical instruments used for the biennial sowing and harvest festivities. These sculptures can be identified by their heart shaped face and the application of red and white pigment.
Mambila helm masks have accentuated traits and characteristics and the statues have a dynamic appearance.
The masks could only be seen by men. The Mambila masks were mainly zoomorphic and represented: the owl who signaled death, the dog dedicated to the hunt, and the crow that was a taboo animal. The Mambila also had a human face mask inscribed in a heart shape with horns towards the back.
Dancing that took place before the end of the sowing season, was led by a helm mask in the form of a stylized human head followed by dancers with masks symbolizing a dog or magpie head.
Some Janus helm masks, similar to the Bamileke Janus masks that represent the ancestors exist, but they are rare.
The statues of the ancestors were either made from pieces of wood tied together, or else were in human form. The ancestors were responsible for the prosperity of the tribe. These statues stand on short bent legs with a large head and sometimes the hair is styled using small tenons of wood.
The Mambila also made coloured pottery.
Social and Economic Organisation of the Mambila People
The Mambila inhabit a region near to Cameroon and Nigeria. The Mambila live from farming and raising animals.
Each family owns land, granted to them in the beginning by the chief of the village. The men and the women share the workload and children begin school at the age of 12 years old. A society of mutual aid helps with clearing land, the harvest and building houses. In so doing, it contributes to establishing good social relations, further enhanced by the organisation of festivities and dances. The men are responsible for weaving the cotton and fibres, for the wood, and working metal. Blacksmiths and shopkeepers have a special status. The blacksmith’s trade is handed down from father to son. The sons can only marry in their own community, whilst the daughters can marry outside.
There is neither king nor central power among the Mambila. The village chief is responsible for the internal relations of the community. An association also contributes here, settling conflicts and forging alliances by organising ceremonies where the participants drink millet beer from the same cup.
Each family lived on a plot of land with three or four huts protected by fencing. They lived grouped together often at the top of a hill and under the authority of the chief.
The Mambila believed in a God creator but did not worship their ancestors.
The Mambila Sculptor
The wood sculptor did not have a particular status like the blacksmith. There was no special prestige linked to his trade, but nevertheless he could gain a good reputation if he worked well. He sculpted light wood and burnt the sculpture with a hot chisel to give it a lovely patina. The surface remained slightly rough with traces of marks made by tools such as the adze.
The Mambila created statues of the ancestors, objects of protection, masks and musical instruments used for the biennial sowing and harvest festivities. Everybody joined in, and the festivities moved from village to village over the course of several weeks. This was the perfect time for the sexual relationships of young girls and often ended in numerous marriages which in any case were only celebrated at this time of the year. Dances were led by a man wearing a helm mask in the form of a stylized head.
The masks could only be seen by men. They were worn along with a costume made from fibres. The masks and the statues couldn’t be seen by the women and were kept in a net hung in a stilt hut guarded by the head of the family.
The Mambila made several sculptures from clay, and objects that didn’t take on human form had the role of increasing fertility, or acted as protection from witchcraft. They also made birthing stools and clay pipes for the mothers of twins.