African Carvings and Sculptures

Kenya National Archives

The Shona of Zimbwabwe, the Makonde of Tanzania and the Karamojong of Uganda are some of the leading carvers in Africa. Other carvers from various parts of the continent such as Kenya, Mali, Nigeria among others have also been known for their extraordinary talent in the art of carving spectacular figures out of wood, metal, stone and ivory.

INTRODUCTION
The Shona of Zimbwabwe, the Makonde of Tanzania and the Karamojong of Uganda are some of the leading carvers in Africa. Other carvers from various parts of the continent such as Kenya, Mali, Nigeria among others have also been known for their extraordinary talent in the art of carving spectacular figures out of wood, metal, stone and ivory.
Makonde Sculptures
The Makonde are an ethnic group in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique. The Makonde developed their culture on the Mueda Plateau in Mozambique.  They are most noted for their mesmerizing abstract sculptures with fanciful human themes as well as Tree of Life sculptures,   some of which derive from the Ujamaa (pulling together) period of nation building in Tanzania. The Makonde Work is a vigorous commentary on human life and death in a tribal setting. The most famous traditional sculpture by the Makonde is a mask with intricate tribal markings, often with in-laid human hair.

This is an example of a miniature sculpture created by an unknown Makonde carver. Makonde artists were encouraged to curve in Ivory and stone by an Indian merchant named Mr. Peeras who had a shop in Dar es salaam where the collector, Mr. Murumbi purchased this head and other works.

The Makonde traditionally carve household objects, figures and masks.

After the 1930s, the Portuguese colonizers and other missionaries arrived at the Makonde plateau.

They immediately showed great interest and fascination for the Makonde carvings and began to order different pieces, from religious to political “eminences.”

This particular sculpture depicts the Tanzanian spirit of "Ujamaa" (socialism), where members of the community help each other to achieve greater heights.

This sculpture depicts the "Tree of Life" - the coming together of generations.

The Makonde sculptors, after noticing such interest, decided to carve the new pieces using pau-preto (ebony wood, Diospyros ebenum) and pau-rosa (Swartzia spp.) instead of the soft and non long-lasting wood they had used before.

The first contact with the Western culture can be considered to be the first introduction of the classical European style into the traditional Makonde style.

An essential step was the turning to abstract figures, mostly spirits, Shetani, that play a special role.

The ex libris of ritual Makonde art are the unique Mapiko masks (singular: Lipiko), which have been used in coming-of-age rituals since before contact was made with missionaries, in the 19th century.

These masks are painstakingly carved from a single block of light wood (usually 'sumaumeira brava') and may represent spirits ('shetani'), ancestors, or living characters (real or idealized).

Ritual carved spoon made using pau-preto (ebony wood).

Carved detail.

Carved detail representing a sitting animal.

This first contact with the Western culture can be considered to be the first introduction of the classical European style into the traditional Makonde style.

Since the 1950s years the socalled Modern Makonde Art has been developed.

Shona Stone Carvings
The Shona of Zimbabwe are among Africa's most prolific carvers.

It has been documented that the people we know as the Shona started carving stones more than 2000 years ago.

Originally, they would carve to express both personal and spiritual beliefs.

They are very religious and spiritual people. The Shona believe in ancestral spirits known as “Vadzimu” spirits.

Shona sculptures demonstrate the unity between our two worlds, the physical and the spiritual.

These incredible stone carvers hold firm to the belief that every stone and every thing has a life spirit. It is that 'life spirit' that influences what sculpture that stone will become.

Many artists believe that it is their job to “release the spirit from the stone”.

Shona artists that have been carving for many years have developed their own distinct style.

Each sculpture is an original and completely hand carved by an artist.

Because the Shona are so spiritual, the artists have been able to retain their own artistic styles and freedom of expression.

Karamojong Carving
Charming stone and wood carvings of cattle and warriors were made by Karamonjong carvers until Idi Amin's rule of tyranny. Most of the carvers were killed or disappeared. A European from Uganda, John Wilson, has opened a museum of Karamonjong material in Kitale, across the border in Kenya.

The Karamojong live in the southern part of region in the north-east of Uganda, occupying an area equivalent to one tenth of the country. According to anthropologists, the Karamojong are part of a group that migrated from present-day Ethiopia around 1600 A.D. and split into two branches, with one branch moving to present day Kenya to form the Kalenjin group and Maasai cluster.

The other branch, called Ateker, migrated westwards. Ateker further split into several groups, including Turkana in present day Kenya, Iteso, Dodoth, Jie, Karamojong, and Kumam in present day Uganda, also Jiye and Toposa in southern Sudan all of them together now known as the "Teso Cluster" or "Karamojong Cluster".

It is said that the Karamojong were originally known as the Jie. The name Karamojong derived from phrase "ekar ngimojong", meaning "the old men can walk no farther".

Cattle are a key element of Karamojong culture. They are highly valued both in economic and social terms.

Cattle are literally wealth; they are used to establish families, acquire political supporters, achieve status, and influence public affairs. The payment of cattle, as bride-wealth, to a girl's kin is an essential step in arranging a marriage.

Mintadi Figures, Kongo
From the Bakongo tribe near the border of Angola, these ancestor guardian memorial figures of funerary monuments, dating back to the 16th century, are in the same  style as that of many wooden ancestor figures of the old kingdom of Kongo, often depicted in a cross legged position.

Mintadi style is distinguished by angularity, using precise, faceted forms.

Proportions are arbitrary: the hands may be unnaturally placed and the legs truncated

Attention is concentrated on the head, as it's customary in traditional sculpture.

At present, several hundred Mintadi statuettes are known. They were made approximately from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century by Mbomba and other Kongo peoples.

Kenya National Archives
Credits: Story

Research and curation:

1. Martin K. Maitha
2. Magunga Williams Oduor, who runs Kenya's leading digital creative writing space (www.magunga.com)
3. Belva Digital team.

Photography: Bobbypall Photography (http://bobbypallphotography.co.ke/)

Text & Images: Kenya National Archives and Alan Donovan of African Heritage

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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