Makonde - Figurative Carvings

My thanks go to the following for information and images about Makonde carvings: Tribal Arts and Antiquities of Atlanta, Georgia, the Hamill Gallery of African Art, the Heart and Soul Gallery, Elsa Dionísio, and the Gallery of Native Art. Images are credited individually next to their full-size versions (click on the thumbnails).
   There's a good introduction to Makonde wood carving in Fadhili S. Mshana's article about the Zaramo carver Salum Chuma. The page is posted on two sites: click here or here. See also Peter-Andreas Kamphausen's eye-pleasing Hamburg Mawingu Collection of Modern Makonde Art, and Makonde Museum - the latter is slow in loadiong but worth the wait.
In this page:
The Makonde carving tradition
Images - the Binadamu style
Images - the Ujamaa style
Images - the Shetani style

The Makonde carving tradition

The Makonde are, of course, famous for the wood carvings which bear their name. The tradition has existed among them for at least three centuries, when examples were brought back by Arab traders. It is likely that the tradition is much, much older than that. Originally naturalistic and impregnated with meaning, the carvings are now generally more abstract, in keeping with the tastes of tourists and collectors.
   The one thing the carvings have in common is that they are invariably carved from a single piece of wood, no matter how intricate the design. The wood traditionally used comes from the African Blackwood tree (Dalbergia Melanoxylon), also known as "Mozambique Ebony". It is extremely fine-grained and dark in colour, and so ideally-suited for carving. This unfortunately also means that the tree has become endangered: read Noeline Gannaway's touching article Saving the Tree of Music (external site; page opens in a new browser window).

The best-known works are the 'tree of life' carvings in the ujamaa style, being intricately carved conjunctions of interlocking human figures representing both unity and continuity. Less well-known are the ritual masks, which were (and still are, I believe) used by dancers who embody the forms of spirits and ancestors. Aside from masks (see the Masks page for these), there are four main styles of carving, which are characterised by subject matter. The oldest form is the female figure, and relate to the cult of womanhood, in keeping with the Makonde creation myth in which the male ancestor of the Makonde got lonely and created a carving of a woman, who came alive. She was not just the first woman, but the first human, because the male was only a 'creature' (some might say nothing much has changed!). These carvings were carried by men for protection when travelling.
   These figures have latterly developed into the Ujamaa style. Other recent genres are Binadamu (daily life) and Shetani (spirits), which were apparently developed after the 1950s wave of migrations from Mozambique to Tanzania.

Binadamu (daily life)

Binadamu Couple, by Joseph Chengula Binadamu Man, by Joseph Chengula Calabassa Woman, by Joseph Chengula

The binadamu carving style is used to represent Makonde men and women pursuing traditional roles: old men smoking pipes, women with calabashes fetching water, and so on. The style is naturalistic.

Ujamaa (unity)

Makonde Tree of Life (detail) Makonde Tree of Life Mother and Child, by Joseph Chengula

Also known as "trees of life" or "people poles", the intricate ujamaa carvings depict a column of naturalistically-carved intertwined human figures. Often appearing as though locked in dance, these are the works which brought Makonde their fame - lively and exciting, full of movement, rhythm and balance.
   The word ujamaa has many meanings - brotherhood, cooperation, family, togetherness - and was also a by-word for post-independence Tanzanian politics: after freedom (uhuru) came ujamaa - unity, which was used to describe the government's collective social policy. The meaning in the context of the carvings is clear: from one block of wood comes the unity of the family, society and ancestors. The older generation is depicted on the bottom, supporting (literally and symbolically) later generations. The central figure is usually a mother surrounded by many clinging children. This theme has its roots in the creation myth of the Makonde, in which a woman was the first human ancestor.

Shetani (spirits)

Shetani 1, by Joseph Chengula Shetani 2, by Joseph Chengula

The latest style to develop is more abstract. Its models are the spirits of Makonde folklore presented in distorted, often grotesque form. The word shetani means "spirit", both good and bad, although westerners usually misunderstand the concept and translate it as something "evil" or "mischievous" (the word comes from the Arabic, which itself gave European languages the word Satan).
   For the carvers, the world of shetani is a particularly rich source of imagery to draw on for their art.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography