Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Makonde woodcarvings symbolizes African traditional culture

AMONG the major representatives of Tanzanian figurative art are the Makonde people, who are renowned throughout East Africa for their original and often highly fanciful carvings. Authentic Makonde carvings are made from ebony wood. The Makonde are one of the five major tribes in Tanzania who originally migrated north from Mozambique to the southern Tanzanian highlands. They are internationally famous for their intricate carvings, based on Life, Love, Good and Evil and which form their beliefs about the origins of man. The Makonde people had a traditional tale that "In the beginning, there was a man, who lived alone in a wild place and was lonely. One day he took a piece of wood and shaped it with a tool into a figure. He placed the figure in the sun by his dwelling. Night fell and when the sun rose again the figure was a woman and she became his wife. They conceived and a child was born, but after three days it died. 'Let us move from the river to a higher place where the reed beds grow.' Said the wife. And this they did. Again she conceived and a child was born, but after three days it, too, died. Again the woman said 'Let us move to yet higher ground where the thick bush grows.' Once more they moved. A third time they conceived and a child was born. The child lived, and he was the first Makonde."
The carvings are possibly the greatest art forms which originate from Tanzania and are considered the most positive and uninhibited of all East African art. For centuries their figures carved from Mpingo or Ebony have played a central role in their ceremonies.
Today the carvings still maintain the traditional elements of the human story in a tribal setting although many of the carvers have inevitably been influenced by the Western demand for their products. It is easy to find what is classed as "Modern Makonde" which is aimed purely at the tourist market and is basically Modigliani in style.
Mpingo bark is a light color under which is a small layer of white soft wood. The heart wood, however, is very hard and varies in color from a deep red to black depending on the soil type and age of the tree.
When finished, the carvings are polished and the wood quite literally shines. Again, due mainly to the tourist trade, the carvers also use other types of wood such as coconut and some have also learnt to carve in stone and coral.
Makonde sculpture, old and modern, represents an artistic tradition which evolved in response to the historical and economic forces affecting the Makonde people throughout the twentieth century, especially after the 1930s.
It is a story which unfolds in reverse chronology from the contemporary internationally known modern Makonde sculpture to its historical and cultural antecedents about which less has been written or is known.
Makonde sculpture dates back in the year 1930s when the first exhibition was held at Centro Cultural dos Novos in Mozambique. However, it was in Tanzania, where many Mozambique Makonde ethnic group had emigrated in search for work, that interest in their sculpture as a commodity arose.

A typical Makonde sculpture of the original Makonde people who are fond of making tattoos on their faces (photo put side)

The Indian merchant Peera was instrumental in encouraging this development. Using the hard wood mpingo (Dalbergia Melanoxylon), Manguli Istiwawo, Pajume Allale, Roberto Jacobs, and others carved in what has become known as the "tree of life".
Modern Makonde art derives from the Makonde people living on the plateau south of the Ruvuma river in Mozambique (rather than from the Tanzanian Makonde). They migrated north into Tanzania and entered into the curio trade that began to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s in Dar es Salaam and Mtwara respectively.
During this time many Makonde farmers in northern Mozambique took up woodcarving to sell and supplement their incomes, this was encouraged by the FRELIMO liberation movement, which organized cooperative marketing of these carvings in Tanzania.
Their new sculptural forms grew naturally out of older traditions of woodcarving, unlike the Tanzanian Makonde, who had no real carving tradition. Modern Makonde sculptures range from curios of the airport variety to truly fine sculptures of imagination and artistry, but the reality of their production for commercial purposes is one that cannot be ignored.
Coote discusses the materials, techniques, styles and genres. In addition to traditional carving (especially masks with typical Makonde scarification), there are three identifiable modern styles, these are referred to as ‘binadamu, ujamaa, and shetani’.
The three correspond perfectly with the characteristics sought by Western art consumers of "erotic" art a move to naturalism, giganticism and grotesqueness. Shetani sculptures were once thought to be the invention of one man,
Of course, the modern Makonde woodcarving tradition goes back well before the war of liberation, but the war and its aftermath served as a genuine impetus. The style of the figures also changed, going from the earlier naturalistic rather benign figures to more distorted, satirical or somber depictions. The so-called ujamaa sculptures or in Portuguese "unidade de povo" date from the days of the liberation struggle. The "shetani" style originated with Samaki, but was quickly imitated and soon became a popular and successful commodity in the markets of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Following independence in Mozambique in 1975, official recognition on the part of the government has further encouraged this modern tradition of sculpture.
The shetani sculptures from Mozambique differed from those in Tanzania, the latter were more sexually explicit and grotesque, being solely for the foreign tourist market. The FRELIMO philosophy also mitigated or "tamed" the influence of the male masquerade mapico (mapiko), which came to be seen as essentially oppressive to women. The mapico was "liberated" and became a cultural symbol for Mozambique; it is danced on national days and has even appeared on a postage stamp. 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 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.

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 used by dancers who embody the forms of spirits and ancestors. Earlier Makonde carvings generally depicted more traditional themes, often relating to various deities or rituals. Even today, the Makonde produce carvings of ordinary household objects such as bowls and walking sticks, although these are seldom seen for sale. While it can be argued that the extensive commercialization of Makonde carvings has had a negative impact on artistic and imaginative quality, it has not totally destroyed originality. On the positive side, it has had the effect of securing many carvers a livelihood which they would not have been able to achieve otherwise. The major centers of Makonde carving in Tanzania are in the south-east on the Makonde plateau, and in Dar es Salaam which became a haven for Makonde carvers during the large-scale migrations from Mozambique in the 1950s and 1960s. Many Makonde migrants made their way from Mozambique into southern Tanzania, and from there to the capital, attracted by better employment opportunities and by favorable marketing prospects for their carving.

1 comment:

Evolving Currents said...

This has been a very informative article. I am interested in visiting one of the Makonde centres when we come to Tanzania in the summer. I would be delighted if you could send us information on their exact locations; email-olutor@gmail.com. Kind regards