Wed | May 22, 2019

Carvings from Tanzania's history

Published:Sunday | August 12, 2018 | 12:00 AM
An Ujamaa-style sculpture.

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


- Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica