African Carvings and Sculptures

By Kenya National Archives

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.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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 (1900/1980) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/1980) by UnknownKenya National Archives

The Makonde traditionally carve household objects, figures and masks.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/1980) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.”

Makonde Sculptures (1900/1980) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Makonde Sculptures (1900/1980) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Makonde Sculptures (1901/2016) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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).

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Carved detail.

Carved detail representing a sitting animal.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Makonde Sculptures (1900/2015) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Shona Stone Carvings

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

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Shona Stone Carving (Unknown) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Shona Stone Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Karamojong Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Karamojong Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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".

Karamojong Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Karamojong Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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".

Karamojong Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Karamojong Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Karamojong Carving (1800/1960) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Mintadi Figures, Kongo (1500/1500) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

Mintadi Figures, Kongo (1500/1500) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Mintadi Figures, Kongo (1500/1500) by UnknownKenya National Archives

Mintadi Figures, Kongo (1500/1500) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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

Mintadi Figures, Kongo (1500/1500) by UnknownKenya National Archives

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.

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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