Where: Kariakoo market, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania is a great place to pick up carvings
Craftsmen: Makonde people of Tanzania & Mozambique
What’s in store: African Blackwood figurines masterfully carved into ritual and modern human forms.
The people of Tanzania are well known to be creative masters, and whatever your budget you’re bound to come home laden with handicrafts, jewellery, tribal trinkets, furniture and works of art. Perhaps the most celebrated craft from the region is the extraordinary wooden spirit-figures, carved by the Makonde people for over 300 years.
The Makonde people live on either side of the Tanzania-Mozambique border. Carving communities lived in relative isolation in the savannah highlands until the beginning of the 20th century, when they began to migrate to the coastal areas in search of employment. Awareness of their craft, which was passed down through the generations, gradually spread and in the 1950’s a Makonde workshop was set up in Dar es Salaam. The peculiar carvings began to attract attention from international art dealers and fine example can be seen in galleries and museums around the world.
The figurines are carved out of a single block of African Blackwood using an adze or teso, saw, chisel, and a variety of other tools to create certain effects. Modern Makonde carvings fall into three main categories: representing men and women carrying out traditional roles within the community; intertwined figures participating in ceremonial rituals or showing several generations derived from a common ancestor, known as ‘people trees’; and depictions of ancestors & spirits from mythology in human form, often with an enlarged left ear.
Many communities actually believe the sculptures are embodiments of the spirits, and make offerings of maize and corn to them. Some still hold that they possess supernatural powers, and male Makonde carvers can carry a female figuring as a good luck charm.
Where to bag a bargain
You can buy all manner of ethnic arts and crafts at market stalls and shops throughout Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Zanzibar.
One of the most colourful markets is Kariakoo Market in Dar es Salaam, built by the Germans as a military base in 1914 and subsequently taken over by the British during World War I. Today the market stocks all kinds of foods, household goods, clothes, carvings, pottery and other handicrafts. The eastern wall is decorated with beautiful murals, and shoppers are entertained by musicians and performers. Locals and visitors alike flock to Kariakoo – it’s a place where different cultures from all over East Africa intermingle.
If you want to watch artists at work, visit the Nyumba ya Sanaa, or ‘House of Art’ on Dar es Salaam’s Upanga Street. It’s a non-profit making centre which supports the continuation of artistic traditions amongst young artists, and has a permanent display paintings, textiles, jewellery and pottery.
By Jess Halliday