Thursday, July 18, 2019

Makonde carvings

Stanley - Thursday

I’ve been collecting African masks and sculptures since about 1970, when I bought my first piece – a Makonde spirit sculpture. 

My first Makonde piece, bought in about 1970

The Makonde are a matrilineal society originally from northern Mozambique, and are now primarily found there and in south-eastern Tanzania. They are renowned wood carvers and decorators of their own bodies. From a religious point of view, as far as I can see, they have resisted conversion to any outside religion despite pressures from both Christian missionaries and prolonged contact with Islamic traders.  Their belief systems revolve around belief in and reverence for their ancestors. 

It was only a hundred years ago that they started coming into contact with Europeans, particularly Portuguese, and this had an enormous influence on their art. Prior to this, the carvings were primarily used in various religious and initiation ceremonies. Although this continues to be very important, the Makonde carvers realized early on that Europeans were fascinated by their pieces and developed a style that was designed to appeal to tourists. Pieces in this style can be found all over southern and eastern Africa.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types of carving: the mapiko, or helmet masks, used in initiation and other community ceremonies. They are worn on the top of the head during dances. Typically, they are very light, made from the kapok tree, and often have human hair embedded on the top. A variation of these, also called mapiko, are body masks, typically depicting a pregnant woman, worn by men to honour the pain of childbirth.

Note the human hair 
Note the lip plug (see end of blog)

Body mask - not in my collection
The other type of carving are known as spirit or shetani sculptures, and these are the ones that attracted European interest. Shetani are characters in east Africsn mythology and belief. They are usually malevolent, have many different powers, and take many forms. Physically, shetani have distorted human and/or animal forms. Consequently, shetani sculptures are often regarded as being grotesque. To many people, they are just weird! To me, they resonate. Unlike the Mapiko, Shetani sculptures are carved from hard woods.

I found capturing the essence of the Shetani sculptures very difficult because they don't really have a front and back. You have to look at them from all sides. It is also difficult to distinguish in the photos between human limbs and snakes and serpents.

Made for the tourist trade

For the tourists

Made for the tourist trade

Although made for the tourist trade, one of my favourites 

A close-up of the shetani above

My favourite - a gift from Michael and some other friends. 



 As I mentioned earlier, the Makonde are also known for decorating their bodies.

What a wonderful face!

The Makonde are probably the best known sculptors in Africa, mainly because they cottoned on to the tourist trade before most other groups. And they've had a big influence on contemporary carving.

No comments:

Post a Comment