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

June 26, 1994|LEE BROWN | Brown is a professor at San Diego State and an amateur art collector

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — 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.

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.

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.

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