Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S. -- Curiosity about a sculpture of a "fattened bride" Westfield State University art history professor Imo Imeh saw years ago led him to research and eventually write a book about a Nigerian ritual in which women prepare for marriage by becoming "fat and beautiful."
"Daughters of Seclusion: the Revelation of the Ibibio 'Fattened Bride' as the Icon of Beauty and Power" attempts to map historically how the ritual, characterized by women living in "fattening houses," prior to getting married, began and what it means, he said.
Imeh saw the sculpture of one such bride at the Yale University Art Gallery when he was at the school earning his master's and doctoral degrees in art history.
"The book starts off with a conversation about the sculpture and by the time I get to the end of the book there's a conversation about contemporary iterations of the fattened bride," he said. "The ceremony has now found its way into art forms so it's still very much alive, just in a very different way."
Known as "mbopo," the ritual helps prepare a female to become a wife and mother from the teachings of other women who have gone through the same ceremony, Imeh, 32, said. Often the young women will have a man they plan to marry but in some instances when she emerges from seclusion there are suitors waiting, he said.
"What you hear people say is she goes into this space to learn how to become a woman but really what everybody says is she goes in there to become fat and beautiful," said Imeh, who lives in Springfield with his wife, Yeukai Imeh. "That's the expectation but there are all these things tied into her fatness and beauty."
Besides gaining weight during the process, the women learn about sex and how to care for their hair and skin from their female relatives or other women in the community, a "sorority of sorts," he said.
"When she comes out she really becomes an emblem of all things beautiful and all things womanly. She becomes this icon," said Imeh, who is also an artist.
Although American-born, Imeh heard about the ritual growing up from his family, including that his grandmother had gone through it before she married his grandfather. His parents grew up in the region of southeastern Nigeria where in some areas the ritual still takes place today.
During his research while in Nigeria, Imeh was able to observe one woman the day before and the day that she came out of the ritual.
More recently, Imeh began developing a series of paintings that are the "visual embodiment" of his research and includes images of fattened brides, he said. He spends about three days a week drawing and painting in his studio in the Indian Orchard Mills Studios in the Indian Orchard section of Springfield.
One of his current works depicts his reinterpretation of the Christian celebration, known as the Annunciation, of when the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus. In his drawing, Mary will be shown as a fattened bride.
"The idea of this woman who was so pure that God would choose her to be the mother of the Christ, it's almost unimaginable," he said. "In that way this is how people think of the legendary fattened bride."