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Shopping: Tanzania and Kenya : Artistry in Ebony : Carvings Tell Lyrical Tales of African Odysseys and Attitudes

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<i> Brown is a professor at San Diego State and an amateur art collector</i>

Our travel agent protested when my wife and I insisted on spending time in Dar es Salaam last summer, since the main thrust of our Tanzanian trip was the game parks hundreds of miles inland. “What is in Dar?” he asked, with undisguised incredulity.

For me, part of the answer was a return to the city where I had conducted a three-week journalism workshop in 1979 under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. It was a chance to explore and to renew some acquaintances. For both my wife and me, it was part of the vacation of a lifetime, an African odyssey that also would take us to Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

It was also an opportunity to shop for folk art near its source, something we do with zest when we travel, and we wanted to enlarge our collection of Makonde wood carvings.

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The carvings are aptly described in the 1994 Lonely Planet travel guide to East Africa, which says: “Done with inspiration, attention to detail, and an appreciation of the life force which motivates its imagery, it’s a superbly unique art form matched nowhere else in the world.”

The Makonde people came north to the Dar es Salaam area from Mozambique, before the turn of this century, moving north across the Ruvuma River into what then was Tanganyika. The neighboring tribes had called them “Mahwia,” the angry ones, perhaps because they had a reputation as fierce warriors against the Mozambique colonial forces. The carvers in each Makonde village--those who fashioned the ebony sculptures used in adulthood initiations and other ceremonies--naturally moved north with their fellow villagers and began a remarkable artistic tradition that came to have many copiers, a few credible, many not.

Now, nearly a century later, the majority of Makonde-style art is not produced by Makonde carvers, the wood used is rarely ebony, Tanganyika now is Tanzania and the Mahwia anger seems lost, even to the contemporary Makonde, in the harsh mists of the Ruvuma River and the oral fragments of unwritten history.

Travelers will encounter so-called “Makonde carvings” in curio shops, at roadside stands, dusty village markets, airports, art galleries, street corners, hotel gift shops and museums throughout East Africa. But “Makonde carvings” is a term that might better be expressed as Makonde- style carvings.

Makonde-style carvings are contemporary, abstract and finely crafted, setting them apart from most other African art.

The Makonde people tend to be associated with the tropical coastal strip and adjoining savannah that runs from northern Kenya south through Tanzania and Mozambique. The artistic center seems to be around Dar es Salaam, but workshops exist throughout the area. Makonde-style carvings now may be found everywhere in East Africa, and in particular abundance in commercial and tourist centers such as Nairobi, Malindi and Mombasa in Kenya, and in Dar and Arusha in Tanzania. We also shopped in Nairobi and found some fine carvings there.

Makonde carving has come to be appreciated by Europeans, as well as Americans, although it is not well represented in museums outside Germany. It is said to be particularly appreciated in Asia, and a special society was formed in Japan for lovers of the art after Expo ‘70, when the Tanzanian government sent Makonde artists and artifacts to Osaka, Japan.

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The Tanzanian government established the National Cottage Industries Corp. in 1965 to help train, support and encourage artistic and related production at the village and cottage levels. It established connections with Moscow and former East Germany in the early 1970s.

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The earliest Makonde carvings were female figures--the Makonde are matrilineal (of female lineage)--and mpiko (helmet masks). Only later did the sculptures represent men and women in daily activities: a drummer, perhaps, or a smoker, or a woman with a child or a pot. Some mpiko are available in antique shops and since they are antiques, and possibly rare, are generally quite expensive.

With the influx of tourism to Tanzania in the 1950s and 1960s, new styles and forms merged with the old to meet a rapidly expanding, relatively affluent market.

One of these is the stylized depiction of shetani (spirits or devils), a particular combination of the graceful and the grotesque. In Makonde legend, shetani are forest or bush spirits, occasionally dangerous to man, varying from the size of a finger to larger than a man. Depending on who one asks, there are scores or even hundreds of different kinds of shetani.

Shetani, travelers are told, never eat prepared food (preferring raw food, including raw meat) frequently drink blood, engage in athletic mating and have their own societies. The shetani sculptures are characterized by spindly limbs and, usually, at least one exaggerated body part, usually a head, sometimes a reproductive organ. Often they are carved carrying weapons, such as a spear or knife. Most appear fearsome as well as fanciful, sometimes with heads resembling pterodactyls with lip plugs. Some carvers claim to have an older relative or associate who actually has seen a shetani.

A more recent carving development is a style referred to as ujamaa . Ujamaa frequently is a fairly representational depiction of a strong father or mother figure draped from shoulder to ankle with intertwined, clinging children. Ujamaa (which is visually represented by the tree or family of life) was part of the national philosophy propounded by Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, and is not unlike the family values theme that characterized George Bush’s 1992 presidential campaign. Ujamaa carvings are by no means limited to Makonde, although that is a principal association. Many shoppers will find the stalwart ujamaa more pleasant--if less dramatic and iconoclastic--than shetani.

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A third form associated with the Makonde carvers is sometimes referred to as “clouds” or “sky” or mawingu. The style is characterized by a cylindrical latticework of intertwined, abstract, human figures, both male and female, evoking a feeling of elation. The cylinder is usually hollow or, when it isn’t, the graceful figures are separated from the solid core of wood that forms the cylinder center, almost as if they were dancing around it. These carvings, like some ujamaa, sometimes are more than four feet high and command prices approaching $1,000 each.

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Size is only one of the factors that drive Makonde carving prices. Another is quality of workmanship and attention to detail. A third is the marketplace; a gallery quality piece offered for sale in a roadside stand will command less than it would in a gallery. Part of the fun in the roadside purchase, where Makonde-style pieces often sell for $20 to $30, is the bartering. Sometimes competitors gather to listen to the bartering, and sometimes they suggest the buyer might do better in a neighboring stall.

Galleries rarely barter, although we were offered a discount (after we asked) in one Nairobi gallery in which we bought two carvings in the $275 to $325 range--one a Makonde spirit made of rosewood; the other of village elders sitting in a circle. Our savings amounted to about 10%.

We found some of the best Makonde-style carvings in the upscale art galleries of Nairobi. It is worth noting that “good” galleries in Nairobi or elsewhere never are crammed with merchandise, but instead choose to give good display to quality pieces.

Shoppers need to be attentive to a number of factors in buying Makonde-style carvings:

* Ebony trees are protected by governments in East Africa, and those that remain

are gnarled and twisted and do not lend themselves to carving. Unless you are in an antique shop, you probably are buying mpingo, or African blackwood. Like ebony, mpingo is also a heavy, dense black hardwood, and it is plentiful in East Africa. Some carvings also are done in teak and rosewood.

* Buyers sometimes are told that they can tell if a carving “really is ebony” by scratching the bottom through any layers of black shoe polish that may have been applied to blacken the piece. But mpingo also remains black when scratched and, like ebony wood, is characterized by a black core surrounded by a much lighter bark. Even experts are perplexed by differentiating.

* Buyers should inspect carvings for bad cuts, errant chisel marks, poor sanding or polishing.

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* Look also for flaws in the wood, particularly cracks. Both ebony and mpingo are fairly brittle. The best carvers select good wood and then build their pieces around flaws, incorporating the eccentricities of the wood into the final product.

* Look for attention to detail, particularly very small detail, in any carving. A quality effort takes time, even in the most skilled hands, and an inspection of a carving for its detail, as well as its finish, is crucial to an enlightened purchase.

* Similarly, look for spaces between arms and torsos, or between legs. A piece that is solid (similar to bas-relief) rarely will have fine detail, and should not command the price of a more intricate carving.

In Nairobi, we found the Kumbu Kumbu gallery in the Hilton Shopping Arcade on Mama Ngina Street, or African Heritage on Kenyatta Avenue, to have excellent quality carvings at top prices. Shops in the nearby City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street offer a large selection, but careful inspection before purchase is recommended.

Except for street corner vendors selling carvings, downtown Dar es Salaam offers less than might be expected on Samora Avenue, the main shopping street. But about eight miles north of Dar es Salaam, on Makami Road immediately off Bagamoyo Road, is a carvers’ collective: the Mwenge Curio Shops in Mwenge village. The selection is vast, and the skill of the carvers is varied, but it is well worth the trip for a careful shopper who might also enjoy watching the carvers work the wood. Also nearby on Bagamoyo road is the Karibu Art Gallery, with a good selection, and the Village Museum, where carvers work among traditionally built villages.

GUIDEBOOK: Details for Finding African Statues

Getting there: British Airways, Air France, Swissair, KLM and Lufthansa all have connecting flights between LAX and Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, through various European cities. The best service between Nairobi and Dar is with Kenya Airways and Air Tanzania. Where to stay: In downtown Dar es Salaam, the best places are the Hotel Embassy (24 Garden Ave.), P.O. Box 3152, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; from U.S., telephone 011-255-51-30006 or 30035; doubles about $71.

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Motel Agip (Pamba Road), P.O. Box 529, Dar es Salaam; tel. 011-255-51-23511; doubles about $90.

Kilimanjaro Hotel, which overlooks the harbor, (Kivoukoni Front), Dar es Salaam; tel. 011-255-51-21281; doubles $79-$86. All of the above have air-conditioning and either a restaurant or bar. The Embassy and the Kilimanjaro have swimming pools.

In downtown Nairobi, Kenya, four excellent choices are the Hilton Hotel (on Mama Ngina Street near Moi Ave.), P.O. Box 30624, Nairobi; tel. 011-254-2-334000; doubles to $168.

New Stanley Hotel (Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue), P.O. Box 30680, Nairobi; tel. 011-254-2-33-3233; doubles to $94.

Norfolk Hotel (on Harry Thuko Road), P.O. Box 40064, Nairobi; tel. 011-254-2-335422; doubles to $160, more for cottages.

Nairobi Serena Hotel (at the edge of Central Park between Kenyatta Avenue and Nyerere Road), P.O. Box 46302, Nairobi; tel. 011-254-2-725111; doubles to $175.

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What to read: Makonde sculpture is included in half a dozen or more anthologies of African art. But I found an excellent book on the subject in the library: “Modern Makonde Art” by Jorn Korn (Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, London; 1974). It covers the work of five Makonde artists who carve shitani. A broader but briefer description of Makonde carvings may be found in “Arts in East Africa” by Judith von D. Miller (Africana Publishing Co., 1975).

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