When the Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art sculpture was first displayed in the 1970s, it received little attention because it was from Africa. According to the New York Times, it has become the most sought-after art in the United States and Europe after fifty years.
This is due to the fact that the story it tells is unique. Its details only add to its uniqueness and rarity. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the warriors and mothers were carved. The seated images of mothers caring for their children and fearless warriors standing guard contain an untold story of poetry.
According to the Met Museum, warriors and mothers are part of the Mbembe culture’s drums, which play an important role in the people’s rituals and spiritual lives. The sculpture was created by Mbembe chief carvers in Nigeria and has been preserved over time.
The finesse and authenticity of the art drew the attention of some scholars the first time it was shown in 1974 at a gallery in Paris.
However, the story of how it came to Paris is shrouded in mystery. According to the New York Times, a Malian dealer first presented the Warriors and Mothers to a collector and gallery owner, Helene Kamer, in 1972.
The dealer refused to say where he obtained the sculptures, but assured that there were many more where he purchased the first set of Mbembe Art. In 1973, a Malian dealer brought 12 more Warriors and Mothers figures.
With the advent of colonialism, the Mbembe people abandoned the trade of carving sculpture. When it was brought to Paris, the remaining relics were rusting away. Many African art enthusiasts were taken aback by the sculpture’s uniqueness when it was displayed in Paris.
The artwork sold for a good price, making Kamer a fortune. All attempts to locate the Malian dealer, however, were futile. The 14 figures were the only ones the art world had of the Warriors and Mothers sculpture. Following replica sculptures on the market were poorly designed and in poor condition.
The accompanying drums are thought to have deep cultural and social significance to the Mbembe tribesmen. The drums are used to announce the deaths of its residents as well as major social events such as a festival or a call to war. In times of calamity, the drums are also thought to summon the spirits of the departed from the ancestral world.
The relics of the Warriors and Mothers served as a link between the past and the present, reinforcing the virtues of heroism and rebirth after death. One of the stories told by the Warriors and Mothers sculpture of a male figure three feet tall with an aggressive look and decapitated head, which sits at the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, is about Mbembe chief Appiah, who built the village that bears his name. The people believe he protects them, and in times of battle, the warriors of Mbembe are expected to sever their enemy’s head.
No sculpture in the history of Mbembe art is alike. One has its head severed, while the other has its head tilted like a bowling ball on one knee and leaning backward.
According to oral history, these sculptures represent local chiefs who requested that their heads be severed from their bodies and buried with them so that future generations would understand the sacrifices made for their comfort today.
The Mbembe female carrying a child on their lap represents a throne of women’s wisdom and chastity. Many states have interpreted the sculpture differently in their own cultures. Overall, it is expected that the child will live a moral life similar to that instilled in them by their mother.