Background of the Makonde sculpture

Modern Makonde  sculpture is so called in order to separate it from the traditional Makonde sculpture that is used in rituals such as the masks used in the boys and girls initiation ceremonies. However, because of the damage done by Christian and Moslem missionaries early in the nineteenth century, most local people still look at all forms of modern Makonde sculpture as representing objects of worship.


The names kinyago  (fetish) or vinyago (fetishes)  which  the Kiswahili speaking people wrongly call modern Makonde sculpture, is the  result of this early misunderstanding created by the early missionaries. They burnt most of the sculpture they found for fear that their converts  would worship them. The impact of this early indoctrination can be seen even today when one visits homes of most Africans, even the educated ones. Sculpture in the round is seldom found in their homes.


This article is an attempt to discuss some current issues associated with the rise of the modern Makonde sculpture movement in Tanzania. We may start with the issue of the founders of the movement. It has  often  been asked whether the Tanzania  Makonde people  had ever had a sculpture tradition. They had, and there is enough evidence  which proves that before the migration of the Mozambique Makonde into Tanzania, the Tanzania Makonde were producing fine  wooden breast plates, mapiko (masks) and figurines. During the colonial era, the Tanzanian Makonde living at Mtwara used to call themselves  Wamakonde Wamalaba  (The urbanized Makonde) while the migrant Makonde were derogatively called Wamawia (the fierce ones). The Wamalaba  do not  tattoo their bodies, the Mawia  still do especially in some  remote rural areas.These are the creative ones, although their descendants no longer find scarification important as an ethnic identity.


The two groups of Makonde have lived in two distinct environments that shaped their creative lives. The Mozambican Makonde had lived on the Mueda plateau almost inaccessible by an average local invader. The Tanzanian Makonde people lived not far from the Indian ocean shores where invaders could reach them easily. And reaching them easily they did which changed their creative personalities.


The strong ethnic identity that the Mueda plateau helped to cement resulted also in the development of a sculpture tradition to satisfy some  traditional functions. Such traditional rituals as initiation of boys and girls into manhood and womanhood demanded carved objects. The girls are usually given a carved wooden doll to carry it  around with them on their bodies as a good-luck charm. The boys have to fight a mapiko masker as part of the circumcision ceremony



The Eight Major Makonde Styles

The Mozambican Makonde sculptors tend to observe their traditional beliefs, folklore, rituals and  many other cultural practices that  are projected in the sculpture they create. This is reflected in all the eight major styles starting with the Binadamu style which Nyekenya Nangundu is said to have introduced in the early 1930s in Mozambique.


A style called  Dimoongo (power of strength) which a local political zealot later named it Ujamaa, was introduced by the late Roberto Yakobo Sangwani who migrated into Tanzania from Mozambique in the late 1950s.. The original style represented a winner in a wrestling match who was carried shoulder high by his colleagues represented in a cluster of figures. Some later versions were carved showing a female figure at the top of a cluster of figures. This was the beginning of a style known as the Makonde family tree.


Perhaps the most popular style is the Shetani created by Samaki Likankoa in the 1960s. There are different theories regarding the factors that brought about this kind of style. The most common one comes from the patron of Samaki, Mohamed Peera, who used to sell most of the work produced in the  early 1960s to the early 1970s. According to Peera, Samaki brought to him a realistic carving that had accidentally fell down and split into two halves leaving one eye, one ear, one nose opening, one leg and one arm on each half. Peera suggested to Samaki to attempt carving  a sculpture with single body parts. Samaki agreed and brought the work to Peera”s shop which was immediately sold and he was encouraged to carve some more.


Clements Ngala was discouraged by Peera to copy Samaki’s style. He came up with an original style which he called Mawingu.This is most clearly expressed from the following quote from Kingdon (2002:89):

 Mohamed told Clements not to copy Samaki’s work and instead to carve in his own style. So Clements then came up with an original carving of a human-like figure without a face wearing a kind of headdress. In its right hand, which was raised, was the ’ moon’ and in his left hand, which was lowered, it held ‘the earth’. Clements called his new carving mawingu and he told Peera that he got the idea from watching early morning


Finally we come to a master sculptor, Chanuo Maundu, who came up with four styles namely, Giligia, Kimbulumbulu, Mandandosa,and Tumbatumba  all  inspired by traditional beliefs. Giligia is characterized by a figure with large protruding eye and frightening teeth that project outside. This sculpture is based on the fear experienced when one walks alone in the forest.The word kuligia  means ’ to be startled’ in the Makonde language.


Kimbulumbulu appeared in the early 1990s, an anthropomorphic sculpture  that displays facial features in an abstract format; a large eye, nose and mouth carved and placed not in their normal positions, legs from a form that resembles a head. It is a sculpture that represents a person with a nervous behaviour who does not complete things properly.The Makonde word ‘kuumbuluka’ a nervous behaviour, is where the sculptor saw fit to base his creation.


The Mandandosa style represent an evil spirit that is kept by sorcerers to do harm to victims in society .In the old days when the Makonde were involved in  family vendetta, the mandandosa were used as secret weapons .The sculpture is characterized by a single large eye that was used in spying on enemy dwellings.


Lastly the Tumbatumba style which Chauno introduced in the mid-1980s. This style is dominated by a gourd-like structure that is decorated with incised patterns resembling the tattoos the Makonde put on their bodies.According to Kingdon (2002: 194) Chanuo carved a figure with the idea of a situmba (gourd), but the figure became half a gourd and half something else.


Modern Makonde sculpture styles and sub-styles have not reached the end of their creation, they are still being created by Makonde as well as non-Makonde sculptors Sculpture like culture itself, is always dynamic .
It should be remembered that modern Makonde sculpture is a form of African contemporary art produced by sculptors who no longer belong to one ethnic group. The movement has attracted non-Makonde carvers most of whom are creating new styles as well as  sub-styles of the mainstream styles. In this way we shall be in a position to identify factors that drive most sculptors to create new styles as well as sub-styles. To describe tourism as the force behind all creations is to manifest our shallow understanding of how an artist work.

As an artist, the writer has experienced the way art has exhibited a freedom of mind .This freedom of mind can be interpreted variously by those looking at  a work of art that the artist has  produced. The freedom of mind can also adopt the art of alien or past cultures to become part of the mental life of the present.  Artists adapt, re-interpret and resist the influences of other artists. As a visually creative person, an artist is not intimidated by public opinion because his vision is to discover new forms about which the public  knows very little or nothing at all. It is along this thinking  that  most  creative Makonde sculptors  seem to work. And the world should respect their ways of thinking.

Author: Prof. Elias Jengo
Date: 25.12.2009