Book ID 480
Millett, Katherine Makonde Carvings: In the beginning, 2000
Extract Author: This article was submitted by Katherine Millett and Thomson Safaris.
Images and text ©2000 Thomson Safaris, Inc.
"In the beginning, there was a being, not yet 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 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 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. Imitators of the Makonde art across East Africa, often use cheap local hardwoods and finish the carvings with boot polish to give it the Ebony look. The most important theme in true Makonde is the Family, especially the Mother figure. The artists show the struggles and problems of the family as well as the good times that they share. Many of the carvings are also based on faith and religion. The many Spirits they believe in, good and evil, are depicted as well as the folklore passed down through generations.