FRIENDS OF THE MAKONDE

(In Bulletin No 33 we published a review of an exhibition of Makonde sculpture then showing at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. We asked Eirlis Park if she could find out something about how the collection was built up. She has sent us the following – Editor)

When I first arrived in Arusha in 1957, my husband Peter had already been there for five months and so knew exactly where to go to buy material and get the curtains made. Downtown we were warmly welcomed by the Malde family, Mr. Malde senior, Moti Malde and his younger brother. All were very helpful but our buying was often interrupted for introductions to other visitors to the shop who, to my surprise, were not buying but going over to the other side of the shop, to Moti, where there was a square glass case of cameras. Discussion there was on the subject of photography and at the end of our transaction we too drifted across. An unofficial meeting of the Arusha Photographic Society was taking place, In 1957 Moti opened his own purpose designed photographic shop near to the Safari Hotel. To those who know him, Moti Malde and photography are permanently intertwined.

He admits that, originally, the Makonde were a challenge photographically; there were still older women who wore lip plugs – but slowly he began to appreciate the nature of the people themselves – gentle, not aggressive and, as he says, “not against the laws of nature”. Their masks, used in ceremonies, were carved from wood and no killing of birds or animals was involved in decoration. Moti is a Jain and something in the Makonde character appealed to his beliefs. Jains reject the caste system, they believe in non-violence and are against any form of animal sacrifice.

Moti and Kanchen were married in the mid-fifties and it was from this period that serious collecting began. They did, at one time, do some trading in Kamba carving but they decided that the Makonde carvings would be bought and kept for their own personal pleasure, Moti is very methodical – keeping a dossier of where, when and why he purchased each of his gramophone records, for example, and of course, all his photographic material was also well documented – so it was quite natural to record the details of each carving and to make notes after the carver had explained his design.

Between the years 1954 and 1964 very few people wanted the larger Makonde carvings; everyone wanted small pieces which were easily transportable, but the bigger sculptures appealed to the Maldes. They were fascinated by the way the work was developed from the varying shapes of the timber and by how the carver expressed himself and his ideas, often with laughter. Kanchen however, told her husband that she felt that the market value of the carvings was too low and that it was unfair to pay so little for this handwork. So they used to take down from Arusha, baby food, medicines, children’s books, pencils, dried milk etc. and share these with the carvers’ families. Friendships grew up between them, strengthened by each visit.

However, by the early sixties, it became obvious to the Maldes that more and more of the young Makonde carvers were carving to meet the market demand and fewer were following the old traditional ways. They were carving more, but smaller pieces – which meant that they were able to increase their income. So the Maldes stopped collecting in 1968.

Knowing how much her husband loved his carvings, Kanchen began packing them in 1970 to send them to England. Some years later the Maldes followed, finally settling in Bedford. Now, he says he has more time to expand his notes and his one aim is to make the work of Makonde carvers known worldwide. Ask him which is his favourite piece and he will say about 150 are “his very very favourites, but everyone reminds us of a place, a person, a hamlet – very personal memories – their value is the joy of keeping the Makonde within us alive, and we want their art to be recognised in the whole world”.

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