Makonde are Bantu speaking people who live in both northeastern Mozambique
and southeastern Tanzania. The Makonde clans originally lived in Mozambique.
Due to a lack of land and food, some of them moved to Tanzania in the middle
of the 20th century. Their economy is still primarily based on
supplemented by hunting; corn (maize), sorghum, and cassava are the major
The economic and social importance of
women is still great in Makonde society. The women are considered to be
creators of the clans, though one cannot speak of a total matriarchy. The
Makonde people still follow their tripartite view of the world, consisting
of the sky -where the gods live-, the world of spirits and the human world.
Woodcarving is an important part of
Makonde life, both in ancestor worshipping and in their own myth of
creation. When the Makonde moved to Tanzania, selling woodcarving became an
important means of income. In the late sixties designated craft shops were
set up, aimed at providing the artists with a working environment.
In the Western world, the Makonde are
well known for their lightweight wooden Mapiko masks, used in male
initiation rituals. As you will see on this website, their is much more to
Makonde art then these traditional Mapiko masks. We focus mainly on
contemporary ebony woodcarvings.
The Makonde statues are made from ebony wood, coming from Dalbergia
Melanoxylon. This tree, locally called mpingo, is native to the dry East
African coastal plains. The heart of the tree is very heavy (dense) and has
a deep brown to black colouring. The barch is much lighter coloured. The
hardness, durability and colour of the core make ebony wood perfect for
sculpting. Artists and dealers often polish the wood with shoe polish (or
better, bee's wax or line seed oil) to get the ebony's glossy shine.
Recently a number of carvers use softer types of wood, mainly due to
scarcity of the ebony wood.
Besides the female ancestor worship statues (Nungu cult) and the traditional
Mapiko masks, there is also modern art. Three styles of modern Makonde wood
carving can be identified:
Shetani is Swahili for 'little devil'. According to the Makonde,
shetani are creatures that neither human nor animal. They occur in five
forms: human, mammal, fish, bird and reptile. Shetani are believed to be
still around, though most artist never actually saw one (Many claim that
their parents and teachers did encounter shetani). The sculptures are
often heavily deformed giving it an abstract appearance. A large number of
different shetani exist, each with their own purpose and powers (not
Shetani sculptures are said to be introduced in the early second half of
the 20th century. The shetani carvers are very imaginative and creative.
True master carvers excel in creating surprisingly challenging pieces.
Ujamaa is Swahili for the ideology behind Tanzania's socialist
politics, back in the 1960's. The name ujamaa is given to this style
during a 1967 exhibition. Before this the style was referred to as
dimingo (Bantu for strength). The ujamaa sculptures are characterised
by poles of people, displaying everyday activities. There is always one
big figure at the top of the pole, nowadays often female.
Mawingu is Swahili for 'clouds'. With this style, the aim is not to
depict a clear image but more to work with forms, inspired on the early
morning clouds. It is nearest to the western conception of modern art.
The artist we present live in the surrounding of Dar es Salaam. They live in
small villages along the coast and visit the city whenever it's necessary to
sell their pieces. Unlike the carvers that cater solely for tourists, the
artists presented here have irregular contact with their buyers (they seldom
sell directly to the public).
There is a very clear distinction
between original pieces and the pieces which are mass produced for the
tourist market. If you are in Dar Es Salaam, be sure to visit the Mwenge
village to see the mass production of tourist sculptures.
- Makonde, Kirnaes and Korn
(1999), Rhodos ISBN 8772457732.
- Modern Makonde Art, Korn
- From Ritual to Modern Art,
Tradition and modernity in Tanzanian sculpure, Ewel and Oudwater (eds.
2001), Mkuki na Nyota publishers ISBN 9976973853.
- Host of Devils: The history and
context of the making of Makonde spirit sculpture, Kingdon (2002),
- Patronage and Makonde carvers,
Kasfir (1980), in African Arts 13:3,67-70.
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