Carv­ings from Tan­za­nia’s his­tory

Jamaica Gleaner - - ARTS & EDUCATION - In­for­ma­tion com­piled by Shar­ifa Bal­four, as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor, Na­tional Mu­seum Ja­maica

AC­CORD­ING TO the Cam­bridge Dic­tionary, the term ‘sculp­ture’ can be de­fined as “the art of cre­at­ing solid ob­jects that rep­re­sent a thing, per­son, idea, etc, out of a ma­te­rial such as wood, clay, metal, or stone”. One in­ter­est­ing thing about sculp­tures is that they have been found in al­most ev­ery sin­gle civil­i­sa­tion past and present.

Sculp­tures have been used for cen­turies in a myr­iad ways. For ex­am­ple, stat­ues were used to rep­re­sent gods, and an­cient kings com­mis­sioned sculp­tures of them­selves to record their great deeds, pos­si­bly in the hope of mak­ing them­selves im­mor­tal. Early Chris­tians dec­o­rated churches with sculp­tures of demons and dev­ils, which served as a re­minder of the pres­ence of evil for the many church­go­ers who could nei­ther read nor write. It is also im­por­tant to note that there are var­i­ous types of sculp­tures. These in­clude, but are by no means lim­ited to, re­lief, ki­netic (mov­ing), al­le­gor­i­cal, and as­sem­blage.

It is said that some of the finest carv­ings in modern his­tory come from the Makonde peo­ple of Tan­za­nia. The Makonde are an eth­nic group that re­sides in Mozam­bique and South­ern Tan­za­nia. They have a long tra­di­tion of wood carv­ing that re­flects the in­tri­ca­cies and com­plex­ity of their so­ci­ety. Their work can be de­scribed as a mix­ture of imag­i­na­tion, wit, and vi­tal­ity, which re­flects the use of cul­tural myths and sto­ries as in­spi­ra­tion for their mas­ter­ful work. The flow and move­ment of the hu­man form fig­ures promi­nently in their work, and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween man and na­ture is rep­re­sented through the sym­bolic use of an­i­mals.


Carv­ings are an in­te­gral part of the story of ori­gin of Makonde. Ac­cord­ing to Finke (2010), the Makonde ori­gin story states that “in the be­gin­ning, there was a male crea­ture who lived alone for a very long time, but one day, he felt very lonely. Tak­ing a piece of wood from a tree, he carved a fe­male fig­ure and placed it up­right in the sun by his dwelling. Night fell. When the sun rose in the morn­ing, the fig­ure mirac­u­lously came to life as a beau­ti­ful woman, who, of course, be­came his wife.

They con­ceived a child, but the child died three days later. So the cou­ple moved from the river to higher ground, where she con­ceived again, but the child died, again af­ter three days. The cou­ple then de­cided to move again to higher ground, where there was thick bush. This time, the cou­ple con­ceived and the baby lived. Ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, it is be­lieved that this child be­came the first true an­ces­tor of the Makonde peo­ple.

The au­thor also ex­plains that the myth of the cre­ation story al­ludes to the move­ment of the Makonde peo­ple away from low-ly­ing ar­eas that were prone to flood­ing, which led to them be­com­ing iso­lated from other eth­nic groups, and thus, they were able to de­velop an ex­cep­tion­ally strong sense of iden­tity, which still ex­ists to­day.

The be­lief in the im­por­tance of fam­ily, con­ti­nu­ity, and unity is re­flected in the Uja­maa style of sculp­ture pic­tured.

‘Uja­maa’, which gen­er­ally means unity, is pre­sented through the ‘tree of life,’ carv­ings that have com­bi­na­tions of in­ter­lock­ing hu­man fig­ures rep­re­sent­ing unity and con­ti­nu­ity within the fam­ily and the so­ci­ety. Tra­di­tion­ally, Uja­maa sculp­tures fea­ture a cen­tral fig­ure, which de­picts a mother cov­ered with chil­dren cling­ing to her. This rep­re­sents the sup­port­ing of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively.

Ac­cord­ing to Briggs and Wild­man (2009), the carv­ings are made ex­clu­sively from a sin­gle piece of wood from the ‘Dal­ber­gia melanoxy­lan’ tree, which is known as African Black­wood or as Mpingo. Its dark, lus­trous hard­wood, also known mis­tak­enly as African Ebony, al­lows carvers to achieve the in­tri­cate de­tails found in their work. The carver, who is al­ways male, does the carv­ings free handed with the help of ham­mers and chis­els and raps. A large Uja­maa sculp­ture can take sev­eral months to com­plete with some carv­ings – ap­pro­pri­ately – be­ing un­der­taken com­mu­nally. The Makonde Col­lec­tion of Na­tional Mu­seum Ja­maica, a di­vi­sion of the In­sti­tute of Ja­maica, was pre­sented in 1974 by a del­e­ga­tion from Tan­za­nia. The del­e­ga­tion in­cluded wood carvers such as Aluesi Sa­maki, Cle­ment Matei, Issa Sele­mani Ba­hari, Sha­bani Sefu, and Artist John So­mola. – Sources Bar­ton, E. (n.d). The His­tory of Sculp­ture: The New Book of Knowl­edge.

Briggs, P. & Wild­man, K. (2009). Tan­za­nia: With Zanz­ibar, Pemba and Mafia: the Bradt Sa­fari Guide. Bradt Travel Guides ltd. 23 High Street, Chal­font St Peter, Bucks SL9 9QE, Eng­land.

Cam­bridge Dic­tionary. Sculp­ture.

Fin­kle, J. (2010). The rough guide to Tan­za­nia. Rough guides Ltd, 80 Strand, Lon­don, WC2R) RL. (pg232)

Na­tional Mu­seum Ja­maica, Col­lec­tions De­part­ment


An Uja­maa-style sculp­ture

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