Makonde Carvings & African Blackwood

Makonde carving is probably the best known art work produced in Tanzania. This art is produced by the Makonde people of southern Tanzania, and their material of choice is African blackwood, or mpingo. Their work is both traditional and contemporary, reflecting a tribal past as well as modern response to urban life. They utilize their tribal myths and stories as inspiration for the masterful work; one carver, for instance, specializes in ghost spirits and clouds. Animal statuettes, and human and demon-faced ceremonial masks are common.

Mpingo allows them to achieve the incredible detail typical of their work. The image* at the left (click it to see a 108KB GIF image) is called the "Tree of Life" which depicts the members of an extended family, including past and present generations, gently supporting each other, generation after generation, around the family ancestor. This motif speaks to a common human ancestral heritage–all that we have achieved collectively in our various civilizations has been literally built upon the backs of those who came before.

"Tree of Life" carvings can be as large as six feet tall, encompassing the work of one carver for at least nine months. They exhibit an intricacy of design and detail which would not be possible to achieve in a wood less dense and strong than mpingo. The most famous outlet for Makonde art is the Mwenge market in Dar-es-Salaam, where shop holders either buy a finished product, or buy semi-carved pieces or raw timber and pay carvers to work on-site. A large statue is often sold for an initial price in excess of $1000, but it can bring the purchaser three times that amount when resold in a more affluent country. The statues are found in art collections worldwide. A recent exhibit of African art at the University of Virginia Bayly Museum highlighted several pieces of Makonde work.

woodcarvers-sm.jpg (18066 bytes)Mpingo Wood Carvers in the
Crafts Market in Dar es Salaam
Lonely Planet Images

Mpingo from Tanzania also shows up as raw material or finished carving in the large and affluent Nairobi, Kenya tourist market even though trade in mpingo across the Kenya-Tanzania border is illegal. The exact amount of mpingo used for this purpose is not well known even though permits are required. It also is used in the large tourist crafts market in Dar es Salaam. With the settlement of the civil war in Mozambique tourism seems certain to increase in the eastern African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique with a consequent greater demand for mpingo carvings.

Whatever the political restrictions seeking to regulate its trade, it is certain that those who wish to utilize this fine material will find a way to obtain what they need. This reality reinforces the need for programs such as the ABCP which seek to replenish this species and insure its future viability both as a carving resource and vital element in the ecology of the savannah habitats of East Africa.

* This image used with the permission of The Ethnographic Museum at the University of Oslo, Norway. The sculpture pictured is in the collection of the museum, and the photograph is by Ann Christine Eek. The ABCP acknowledges with gratitude the support of the Director, Per B. Rekdal, for permission to use this photograph.





ABCP Website maintained by James E. Harris, 2000.
Last revised 21 Apr 2008.