by Ida Marie Andersen (Translated from an article in Hodi no. 3/80, journal of the Norge-Tanzania foreningen).
Who are the Makonde?
The Makonde belong to the Bantu tribes of Africa. For many years they lived as a compact community on a barren plateau on both sides of the Ruvuma river, which formed the boundary between Tanganyika and Mozambique. Thus, the Makonde lived in two separate countries. Survival is arduous on this plateau and the Makonde got little help from outside. The first missionaries reached the area around 1920, but contact with the outside world was scanty as access was difficult.
In the colonial period there was a demand for labour on the plantations and in the mines and men from the Makonde tribe travelled further north into Tanganyika for work. The northward migration has continued, especially during the liberation struggle in Mozambique, as conditions were unsettled in the Makonde country. The Makonde built their own villages in the areas to which they moved. They have thus been able to live under their own customary laws and maintain many of their ancient traditions, even though there have been many changes in their manner of life and beliefs as among the peoples of Africa generally.
Tribal characteristics and mythology
Makonde society is matrilineal, relationships being determined by the female line of descent. Externally the tribe is distinguished by marks tattooed in a particular pattern on the face and breast of both men and women and the front teeth are filed to a point. The women had a plug or plate in the upper lip, the larger the greater the number of offspring. These customs are, however, dying out. In the old Makonde villages the wood carver occupied an important place and wood carving was a craft handed down from father to son. Wooden figures were used in ceremonies such as weddings, initiations and magical rituals. As far as we know these figures were naturalistic and were made of whatever kind of wood came to hand. In certain ceremonies a display of dancing was customary, where the dancers would wear masks of carved wood and clothing to correspond.
According to Makonde creation mythology, a woman was the foundress of the tribe. A manlike being wandered in the wilderness. In his loneliness he carved a figure of wood and set it up against a tree. As the sun came up the figure became a living woman and at the same time the manlike being was transformed into a man. The woman bore him a child, which died there where they were by the river. She took the man to a higher place, but a second child also died. Eventually they reached the plateau and there their children survived.
It is particularly important for human beings that they are blessed with fertility, both to produce children who in turn are able to give birth to future generations, and to secure good harvests and good returns from cattle so that the tribe may survive. Woman is an important symbol of fertility in her childbearing role. Thus figures of women were later used to bring good fortune and happiness. Closely related to fertility is sexuality, which is a life-giving force and the sex organs symbolise this power.
The Makonde conception of the world about him is different from ours. Supernatural powers in nature control man’s destiny among good and evil spirits, each with its own mode of operation and characteristics. Medicine men and magicians have closer contact with the world of spirits than other men. Their task is therefore to placate the spirits and seek help for mankind. The Makonde honour their ancestors and the spirits of the dead live among them. The individual is a connecting link between past and present generations.
Modern carving among the Makonde
Many Makonde today live wholly or in part by carving. The traditional craft has been further developed and some carvers are recognised artists. The carvers have settled in particular in Makonde villages around Dar es Salaam, where they are able to sell their carving. They like to sit and work in groups beneath a large mango tree, or under a grass shelter beside the road.
The tree that is used produces a hard kind of wood with a black heart-wood surrounded by a lighter layer of sapwood. In Tanzania it is called ‘Mpingo’, or African black-wood. According to Jonn Korn, ebony is not used because the black heartwood does not grow large enough in this part of Africa. This tree has always been reserved for artistic uses and today felling is regulated by the state.
Carvings are made from an entire piece of the trunk and are therefore limited by the thickness of the trunk. Only the heartwood is used. This is so hard that insects and other vermin cannot attack it. From time to time a little of the light sapwood is incorporated. The tools used are simple – an axe, a chisel, a mallet and a knife. Only the men do the carving and the women must therefore undertake most of the work on the village land.
What do the carvings represent?
Makonde carvings can be very varied, ranging from the naturalistic to the abstract and strongly stylised. Naturalistic carvings usually portray human figures in a situation drawn from daily life. A special type are the so-called ‘ujamaa carvings’, in which a group of people, old and young, sustain and clasp each other on a carving fashioned from a single block. Such carvings express human fellowship in an historical perspective, and from time to time, ancestors and the shapes of spirits are included. Another variant is an open design in which each human figure appears to stand right out, and this form is also used with more abstract figures and having a different meaning.
In his ‘shetani’ carvings the carver portrays spirits from Makonde mythology. The normal indication that a carving represents a spirit is the presence of some non-human feature, an enormous ear, or the absence of certain members. Spirits can also have the forms of animals, birds, snakes and chameleons often appear. These carvings have no ritual function in Makonde society and are simply artistic creations. The carvers make no sketches or models before they start and just carve in accordance with their imagination, combined with an inborn feeling for the possibilities inherent in a particular piece of timber. Their creativity and capacity for abstraction does not appear to be diminished by the fact that most of the carvers are illiterate.
Parts of the body are stylised and combined in new ways and mythological symbols are woven in. We find such elements in abstract carvings with a modernistic stamp. The female breast is often carved in a form resembling a calabash – a gourd used for carrying water. This is no accident. The function of the breast is to give milk to a baby so that it may survive. In the Makonde country water is a scarce commodity and one has to go far to fetch it, but all depend on it for survival.
The Makonde carver is indeed receptive of ideas from without, but they can only bring positive results if they inspire him to creative activity on his own terms. With the exception of a carving here and there with Christian symbolism, the influence is difficult to point out directly. But, as we shall see, the purchasers can also influence the Makonde’s carving.
The Makonde carvers and the market
Compared with our own craftsmen, the Tanzanian carver is in the special position that his customers are natives of other parts of the world. He has little direct contact with his public, who make their purchases against the background of a different culture from his.
The market has opened up new possibilities for the development of Makonde art. The few carvers who thereby have acquired an artistic reputation are most often able to sell their products and at the same time to retain relatively intact their freedom to create as they wish. But at the same time we have to admit that most of the carvers are obliged to accommodate themselves to demand and in large measure to reproduce those carvings that sell best at a given time.
The chance of buying original creations is maybe greatest at art shops in the cities and by direct sale to visiting foreigners. Many carvers deliver almost wholly to purchasers in the export business; these are mostly anonymous craftsmen who more or less mass produce popular models. Only the best known carvers sign their work, but of course good unsigned original carvings are also found.
The parastatal organisation ‘Tanzania Handicraft Corporation’, which promotes handicraft products has a large turnover of Makonde carvings. But mass production is seen as essential for this purpose. The corporation is able to attract substantial foreign exchange income from its operations. At an art centre in Dar es Salaam, ‘Nyumba ya Sanaa’, students are enrolled from various tribes. Here also Makonde carvings are made. It is hard to say as yet whether this centre will make a significant contribution to the art of the carver in years to come.
Commercialisation of this peculiar Makonde craft has come to stay. Craftsmen lose their freedom by becoming dependent on purchasers who enrich themselves by exporting their products. If official cultural policies dictate that Tanzania needs foreign exchange, it is questionable how long the craftsmanship will retain its special character.
The society in which the Makonde live is continually changing. These are difficult times both for those living in Mozambique and for those in Tanzania. We can only pose the question whether there will be fertile soil for the maintenance of this special form of art. To what extent are the craftsmen who are able to renew and develop the art of carving dependent on their contacts with their own cultural tradition?
Berg, Erik: Makondene- kulturfolk in Ost-Afrika: article in Norkontakt, No.1 of 1981
Fouquer, Roger: The Makonde and their sculpture – Dar es Salaam, 1972
Korn, Jorn: Modern Makonde Art – Hamlyn Publishing Group, London 1974
Museet i Dar es Salaam fortaeller om Tanzania: Danish National Commission for UNESCO 1974
Poppius, Ulla: Makondeskulpturen talar Afrikas eget sprak; Folkbildnings-forbundet, 1973
Stout, J. Anthony: Modern Makonde sculpture: Nairobi, Kibo Art Gallery, 1966.
Wood sculptures of the Makonde people: ed. by Instituto de investigacao scientifica de Mocambique, Laurenco Marques, 1963