The Makonde people are Bantu-speaking people of East Africa that successfully resisted predation by African, Arab, and European slavers and live in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique. They did not fall under colonial power until the 1920s. The Makonde developed their culture on the Mueda Plateau in Mozambique. On top of the plataeu are dense thickets  from which the Makonde get their name “thicket-covered plateau” (Stoner, 9). 
                  Makonde girl with a facial body painting

At present they live throughout Tanzania and Mozambique and have a small presence in Kenya. Makonde live on both sides of the river Ruvuma, which forms the border between Tanzania and Mozambique. The Makonde population in Tanzania was estimated in 2001 to be 1,140,000, and the 1997 census in Mozambique put the Makonde population in that country at 233,358, for a total estimate of 1,373,358 (Grimes 2001). The plateaus, on which most Makonde live, rise either side of the Ruvuma from sea level to an altitude of ca. 900m. 
                                 Makonde man

The Makonde of Mozambique live in the north-east of the Province of Cabo Delgado, the majority of the Makonde of Tanzania live in two of the three districts of the Mtwara Region: Mtwara and Newala. In the third district, Masasi, Makonde live next to Makua and Yao. The northern neighbours of the Makonde in the Lindi Region are the Mwera.

                       Makonde tribe kid

The Makonde plateau in Tanzania extends about 180 km from east to west, and about 80 km from south to north. It is a dry area, covered with dense bush and scattered high trees. There are a number of forest reserves and two lakes, and the highest mountains are situated in the north-west. Makonde means ‘dry areas’, and there is a singular form /Likonde, which is also the name of several villages on the plateau.
The Makonde of Tanzania are divided into three main groups: the Nnima people who live in the north-west of the plateau, the Ndonde people who live on the south-west of the plateau, and the Maraba people who live near the Ruvuma and along the coast aswell as on the eastern part of the plateau. The Maraba are part  of the Swahili coastal culture, which next to their Makonde origin determines their cultural and historical
identity, reflected in their religion (Islam), their fishing practices, the way they dress and their language, which is strongly influenced by Swahili. There is another group that claim to be part of the Makonde people: the Matambwe. They live near the Ruvuma next to the Ndonde with whom they intermarry.

They speak Makonde, also known as ChiMakonde, a Bantu language closely related to Yao. Many speak other languages such as English in Tanzania, Portuguese in Mozambique, and Swahili and Makua in both countries.
                                 Makonde woman wears a lip plug with nail and many facial tattoos.
                                 Location: Mozambique.Photographer:VOLKMAR K. WENTZEL/
                                 National Geographic Stock

Migration and History
It is thought by most historians that the Makonde migrated to their current location during the 1700s and 1800s from the Ndonde area of northern Mozambique.   By 1800 the Portuguese noted that the Mueda Plateau was being populated by Makonde.  There are probably health reasons that led the Makonde to settle on the plateau.  On the plains, especially near the Ruvuma River, there are mosquitoes that carry malaria, tsetse flies that carry sleeping sickness,  and bilharzia is often in the water.  There is also the threat of flooding and animal attacks near in the river.  Their creation myth indicates similar reasons for their migration to the plateau. According to the main version of the story,

    "The first Makonde settled along the Ruvuma River.  He was not yet fully a human being and came out of the thick bush. The man was unwashed and unshaven; he did not eat or drink very much. One day he carved a human figure from wood and set it upright in the bush. During the night, the image came to life and became a woman. The woman became the man’s wife. Together, the couple washed for the first time in the Ruvuma River.

On the bank of the river, the woman delivered a stillborn child. They traveled a little farther, whether the woman delivered another still born child. Finally, they traveled to the plateau, where the woman gave birth to a third child. That child survived. Over time, the couple had many other children on the plateau. These children became the first ancestors of the Makonde.

The father ordered his descendants to bury anyone who died in an upright position in memory of his wife.  She had come alive when the wooden figure of her was set upright, and she had become the mother of all the Makonde. He also warned them against settling in the valleys and near large stream because sickness and death lived there. Each village, he said, should be at least a one-hour walk from the nearest source of water. If they lived any closer, they would be plagued by illness and death.” (Stoner,11)

Health reasons were not the only reason for their migration.  The Ngoni, a people fleeing war in Zululand, began to raid the Makonde for land and slaves. Many battles were fought and prisoners were taken on both sides, but the Makonde were too well-defended and the Ngoni could not defeat them. During this period Makonde villages are known to have been fortified with a thick barrier of impenetrable thicket called a lingongo (plural: mangongo). In addition to planting mangongo around villages, the Makonde also hid their villages in the most impenetrable parts of the bush and cuts mazes of a false paths, in a places laid in concealed spikes in order to hinder the progress of the enemy. The plateau with its thick bush protected the Makonde from slavery and war.
                                         Makonde dancers

But if the Makonde has a reputation for fierceness and inhospitability, then it evidently played a role in their survival and in the preservation of their special identity. Thus, in 1882 Joseph Tompson wrote that "They (the Makonde) are noted as the most exclusive tribe in East Africa, as even the Arabs have as yet been unable to penetrate beyond the outskirts of their country." O`Neill (1885) describes a situation which shows Makonde aversion to slave trading practice of the east coast in which several Makonde "chiefs" were apparently combining forces to in order to make war on a Makonde "chief" (Mkopoka) who has sold his fellow to coastal slave traders.
                        "I found Mkopoka just one of those whom the coast native traders like to find at the
                         head of affairs......Led by them, it appeared he had been guilty of kidnapping some
                         of his own tribe, and selling them to slavery. By his own people he was evidently 
                        beginning to be considered as a renegade, and during my stay at his village women
                        were taking flight coast wards, as it was rumoured that war was to be made upon him,
                        in revenge for his conduct, by several of Mavia (makonde) chiefs."                                                             
Most contact that the Makonde had with Europeans was unpleasant.  They first came under German influence around in the 1890′s.  The only sign of German presence was to collect taxes.  In 1905 the Makonde were apart of the  Maji-Maji Rebellion  to resist German rule; in this they attacked Christian mission stations in the Lukuledi Valley, and they defended their plateau under their leader Hamadi. This rebellion was crushed in 1906.

In WWI the British took Tanzania, then called German East Africa, and renamed it Tanganika.  The Makonde also resisted British rule by not paying taxes or obeying their rulers. Famine struck in 1915 during the war.  Many Makonde died when they were struck by small pox and the Spanish Flu.
         Tattooed Makonde woman from Mozambique learning how to knit.VOLKMAR K. WENTZEL/National Geographic Stock

Another impactful event experienced by the Makonde is the Groundnut Scheme in 1947.  A British official decided to mass produce peanuts in Tanzania to feed into the oil market in Britain.  Many Makonde people were recruited to work on this project; they benefited some from the wages but there were drawback in crimes. They continued resistance (mostly non-violent) to British rule until Tanzania’s independence in 1964

During the 1960s the revolution which drove the Portuguese out of Mozambique was launched from the Makonde homeland of the Mueda Plateau. At one period this revolutionary movement known as 'Frelimo' derived a part of its financial support from the sale of Makonde carvings. 
                                 Makonde woman dancer from Mozambique. By plinmoz


Most Makonde are farmers; they practice what is called “stump cultivation.” In this stumps are left in fields to provide support for vines and to prevent erosion.  Makonde usually cultivate a few fields while leaving several fallow to replenish themselves.  The men are also taught to hunt.  Some Makonde men are blacksmiths and carvers; they sell their work to tourists and art dealers.
                                                        Makonde carver

The Makonde also have two main cash crops.  The first is cashews which falls to the ground when ripe so it only has to be planted and harvested. There is also sisal which is a fiber that makes rope and twine.  Some Makonde work on sisal and cashew plantations and do not have land.  These cash crops have introduced private property into Makonde society.  With this the power of the village elder (mkulungwa), who controlled the land,  has been weakened.  The introduction of taxes has also changed Makonde society.  By being forced to pay money many Makonde have had to work on plantations for low wages.

                           Makonde woman and a potter from Mozambique

The Makonde are a matrilineal society which means that they trace their family line through their mother.  Because of this men go to live in the village of their wife’s family.  Many men have several wives and this causes them to move between different villages.  However Makonde culture is increasingly male dominated as they become wage earners in towns and cities.  This change has lessened the balance of power and caused, among other things, women to move to the villages of the men.

                         Makonde woman from Mozambique with lip plug

Each Makonde group consists of several clans, which in turn consist of several extended families.The most important man of the family used to be the njomba, the elder brother of the mother. Clans are headed by a chief who is appointed by his predecessor who normally chooses his sister’s son called mwipwawe. 

                                                Makonde elder

Currently there are no chiefs among the Makonde and people are under the authority of their  kinship group or litawa.  The mwenyekaya is the head of the litawa.  The chirambo is an organizational unit based more on geography than kinship.  The chirambo is usually lead by an elder (mkulungwa) of one of the first migrant kinship groups to the area.  The mkulungwa is held in high esteem for his wisdom but he has little formal authority.   Some of his jobs include allotting land to migrants, offering advise, or securing the village health by appeasing the spirits and ancestors.

Passage of rites

Boy’s initiation (jando)which includes circumcision, is the most important ceremony for boys.  The leader of this ceremony is called the mkukomela, or the Hammerer; he holds the basket (cihelo) with the sacred medicines, carries a swatter (mcila), and wears charms (ihiridi) on his upper arm.  This is a well paid professional position.

An important fire is lit in the middle of the village which is expected to burn during the whole ceremony.  Drummers provide the beat for dancing before the ceremony.  On the day of the circumcision the boys are taken out in the country side to have the operation; afterward they live under a shelter (likumbi). During the healing process the boys are taught by the men about hunting, farming, and sex; they are also  They are taught community morals like respecting their elders.  This ceremony tests the youth’s discipline and obedience.  After the boys heal they leave the likumbi and burn it down with the fire from the village center.  Upon graduation the boys receive a new name and become men.
                     Makonde woman with facial marks and lip plug

The girls initiation (ciputu) is less formal.  A female elder instructs the young women and chooses a house to conduct ceremony.  Young girls are taken into the initiation house for several days of instruction, singing and other activities.  After this the girls are led home by their mothers for a period of seclusion.  Then they are taken back to the ciputu house to be bathed.  On the next morning the girls leave the house for final instruction on sex, marriage, and women’s duties.  At graduation they are anointed with oil, dressed in new clothes, and return home.  The process is completed with a special mdimu dance.  The age of this ceremony was around 10-12 but today women are choosing education before early marriage.
                                                Dancer with Makonde mask. By plinmoz

The mapiko mask dance is an important element in these are other important Makonde ceremonies. They are worn by men who dance to display their power and to scare women and children.  During the boys initiation ceremony the mapiko dancer reveals his identity to the boys; in this the dancer symbolically reveals the secretes of manhood.
                                  Mapiko dance

In matrilineal Makonde society, female lineages owned the land. When a man married, he went to live on the land that belongs to the wife`s family, or moves between the households of several wives. These means Makonde people practices polygynous and single marriages.

Currently, the Makonde men have stopped going to live on their wife`s family land as they have become wage earners. Woman`s family now receives a form of dowry called "paying the rifle" for their daughters in a case of possible marriage.

                                         Makonde woman

Background of the Makonde sculpture (by the Tanzanian artist Prof. Elias Jengo)

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.
                        Makonde sculpture on display

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.
                                   Makonde maternity figure
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.

Autor: by courtesy of Prof. Elias Jengo

Tattoo Anthropology - Dinembo: Tribal Tattoos of the Makonde

by Mission Bill Apprentice, Artist

Dinembo: Tribal Tattoos of the Makonde

© 2006 by Lars Krutak
Among the Bantu-speaking Makonde, tattoos were and continue to be far more elaborate than those of other indigenous peoples living in Mozambique. The resonance of tattooing tradition here can partly be attributed to the landscape in which the Makonde inhabit, a place characterized by relatively inaccessible high plateaus that deterred European and Western contact until the turn of the 20th century; and also to Makonde cosmology and myth which to this day praises the deeds, knowledge, and superior physical attributes of the "great" ancestors of the past, especially tattooed women who became god-like after death.
Traditionally, Makonde tattoos were considered as regional indicators and each tribe preferred specific motifs that were laid down in a variety of set patterns. The face and other parts of the body contained chevrons, angles, zigzag and straight lines with an occasional circle, diamond, dot, or animal figure. Today these patterns have remained largely intact since each generation of Makonde tattooists has only slightly modified their oeuvre, obeying traditional principles that guide their work. To date, the only major innovation within tattooing tradition is the technology itself; and the old triangular tattoo knife has been replaced by a finer razor-bladed model that cuts the skin more evenly and accurately.


Generally speaking, Makonde men tattoo boys and women the girls although overlap between the sexes does occur to some degree. Makonde tattoo artists are "professionals" who learn their skills usually from their parents or from other family members. The general Makonde term for tattoo is dinembo ("design" or "decoration") and the tattooing process usually requires three or more sessions with the mpundi wa dinembo ("tattoo design artist") to produce the desired result. After the cuts have been made with the traditional tattoo implements (chipopo), vegetable carbon is rubbed into the incisions producing a dark blue color.
Tattoo clients, who pay a nominal fee, are held down in a spread-eagle fashion. Just before the tattoo artist begins to ply her tool, she mentally records which designs she will mark. Moving carefully over the skin, she cuts then presses the pigment to the wound until she has finished, leaving the client to dry her wounds in the afternoon sun. After several days, the face is washed and the black lines created by the pigment now begin to show more clearly. Six months later, the entire process is repeated again, but with each successive tattoo layer, a greater relief pattern appears. Finally, a third operation is made which completes the work.
Some girls lose their courage when it is time for the second or third operation and they never complete the painful tattooing. Those who run away are ridiculed and even threatened by the woman who acts as their "godmother" during the dinembo rite, because for the Makonde the tattoo ritual is a sign of courage and "To Show I am a Makonde."

Tattooed Makonde  women, circa 1960
Tattooed Makonde women, circa 1960
Spanning the facial area above the mouth and across the cheeks and nose, lichumba ("deep angles") mark nearly all tattooed Makonde men and women. Lichumba are almost as common as the woman’s ndona, or upper lip labret. Photographs ca. 1960.

Two Makonde women & one with elaborate back tattooing
Two Makonde women & one with elaborate back tattooing comprised of palm frond motifs, ca. 1930.
Postcard from the collection of the author.
Makonde facial tattooing. Photographs ca. 1960.
For the Makonde, tattooing had diverse functions ranging from the personal need to display, to the promotion of group cohesion (e.g., initiation, rite of passage), and to other more esoteric magico-religious principles. Photographs ca. 1960.
The “magical” mankani tattoo ensured fertility and perhaps provided protection against evil spirits.
The "magical" mankani tattoo ensured fertility and perhaps provided protection against evil spirits.

"Magical" lizard tattoos (ligwañula¸singular) were sometimes worn on the chests and backs of Makonde men and women. In some sense, they were believed to enhance virility for men and fertility for women.
"Magical" lizard tattoos were sometimes
worn on the chests and backs of Makonde men
and women. In some sense,  they were believed to enhance virility for men and fertility for women.

Makonde women with ndona (labret), forehead, chin, cheek, and sternum tattoos.
Makonde women with ndona (labret), forehead,
 chin, cheek, and sternum tattoos. The labret is
 made of black ebony with an upright needle
 passing close to the nose, a sign that the
girl is of marriageable age.
Photograph ca. 1960.



Common decorative motifs such as spiders (lidangadanga), crocodiles (nantchiwanuwe), and even yucca root bundles (nkaña) may have had magical associations in the past. And today Makonde women continue to believe that the tattoos placed on their abdomen (mankani) and inner thighs (nchika) have the supernatural power to attract a husband. Of course, the motifs used to decorate these areas, usually palm tress or their fruit (nadi) and especially lizards (magwañula), are believed to enhance fertility.

However, the Makonde practice of tattooing the navel and pubic areas was perhaps related to the long-standing tradition of prophylactic "magic" aimed at warding off penetration or possession by evil forces that targeted vulnerable body passageways, namely the natural openings of the body. Armitage (1924) cites several instances of navel scarification among Bantu-speaking Gonja and Dagomba women in Ghana "put on to ward off or prevent sickness" while the anthropologists Nevadomsky and Aisien (1995) described five tattoos stemming from the navel ("the center of life") among the Bini women of Benin. Not surprisingly, the Bini prepared their tattoo pigments from leaves and lampblack, and at funerals mourners "rub a line of lamp-black on their foreheads to scare away the spirit of the deceased who tries to drag his relatives with him to the world of the dead."


The Makonde adhered to a cosmology dominated by a powerful impersonal force (ntela), the propitiation of ancestral spirits (mahoka) who were sometimes good or evil, and a concept of pervasive bush spirits (nnandenga) and sorcerers who were a form of malevolence.
The spirits of ancestors were often called upon to send cures for sickness, and to ensure success in the harvest or in hunting. Mahoka also served as intermediaries between the living and Nnungu, a powerful deity who was invoked during major droughts when the Makonde collectively prayed for rain.

On the malevolent order, spirits of the dead called mapiko only terrorized women and the non-initiated, while sorcerers created invisible slaves from humans called lindandosa that were sent to the agricultural fields to work their evil magic.
Because excessive fear of death pervaded Makonde belief, its stigma had to be controlled or pre-empted because it threatened the basic assumptions of cosmic order on which society rested. Thus, every woman understood that her participation in society could provoke the negative intervention of powerful spiritual forces made manifest as mahoka, nnandenga, lindandosa, or mapiko who were the ultimate guarantors of social, physical, and economic survival. In this sense, Makonde tattoo arts were an important tool for fostering productive interaction between human beings and spirits, because it is clear that the designs repeatedly tattooed on women helped to secure their commitment to the potencies that bring forth life and to the socialization process of initiation itself. Tattoos also constructed a common visual language through which these relationships could be tangibly expressed and mediated to provide the individual wearer with a means to control her surrounding world.
Similarly, Makonde sculpture and more utilitarian objects like gourds (situmba) and water pots, which embody feminine and reproductive qualities, symbolically reinforced this commitment to order and stability because they were often decorated with tattoo designs. As "ancestral implements" used for carrying water, beer, honey, and seeds for planting, gourds were considered to be female symbols par excellence. And like the tattooed bodies of Makonde women, they acted as conduits through which symbolic meaning poured; meaning that connected the human, spiritual, and ancestral communities of the Makonde of Mozambique.   


Armitage, C.H. (1924)
The Tribal Markings and Marks of Adornment of the Natives of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast Colony. London: Harrison and Sons, Ltd.

Dias, Jorge and Margot Dias (1964)
Os Macondes de Moçambique. 4 vols. Lisboa: Centro de Estudios de Antropologia Cultural.

Nevadomsky, Joseph and Ekhaguosa Aisien (1995)
"The Clothing of Political Identity: Costume and Scarification of the Benin Kingdom." African Arts 28(1): 62-73, 100. 

    makonde women circa 1910

Schneider, Betty (1973)
"Body Decoration in Mozambique." African Arts 6(2): 26-31, 88, 92.   


 Makonde woodcarvings symbolizes African traditional culture

By Emmanuel Oyango
AMONG the major representatives of Tanzanian figurative art are the Makonde people, who are renowned throughout East Africa for their original and often highly fanciful carvings. Authentic Makonde carvings are made from ebony wood. The Makonde are one of the five major tribes in Tanzania who originally migrated north from Mozambique to the southern Tanzanian highlands. They are internationally famous for their intricate carvings, based on Life, Love, Good and Evil and which form their beliefs about the origins of man. The Makonde people had a traditional tale that "In the beginning, there was a man, who lived alone in a wild place and was lonely. One day he took a piece of wood and shaped it with a tool into a figure. He placed the figure in the sun by his dwelling. Night fell and when the sun rose again the figure was a woman and she became his wife. They conceived and a child was born, but after three days it died. 'Let us move from the river to a higher place where the reed beds grow.' Said the wife. And this they did. Again she conceived and a child was born, but after three days it, too, died. Again the woman said 'Let us move to yet higher ground where the thick bush grows.' Once more they moved. A third time they conceived and a child was born. The child lived, and he was the first Makonde."

The carvings are possibly the greatest art forms which originate from Tanzania and are considered the most positive and uninhibited of all East African art. For centuries their figures carved from Mpingo or Ebony have played a central role in their ceremonies.
Today the carvings still maintain the traditional elements of the human story in a tribal setting although many of the carvers have inevitably been influenced by the Western demand for their products. It is easy to find what is classed as "Modern Makonde" which is aimed purely at the tourist market and is basically Modigliani in style.
Mpingo bark is a light color under which is a small layer of white soft wood. The heart wood, however, is very hard and varies in color from a deep red to black depending on the soil type and age of the tree. 

When finished, the carvings are polished and the wood quite literally shines. Again, due mainly to the tourist trade, the carvers also use other types of wood such as coconut and some have also learnt to carve in stone and coral.
Makonde sculpture, old and modern, represents an artistic tradition which evolved in response to the historical and economic forces affecting the Makonde people throughout the twentieth century, especially after the 1930s.
It is a story which unfolds in reverse chronology from the contemporary internationally known modern Makonde sculpture to its historical and cultural antecedents about which less has been written or is known.
Makonde sculpture dates back in the year 1930s when the first exhibition was held at Centro Cultural dos Novos in Mozambique. However, it was in Tanzania, where many Mozambique Makonde ethnic group had emigrated in search for work, that interest in their sculpture as a commodity arose.

A typical Makonde sculpture of the original Makonde people who are fond of making tattoos on their faces (photo put side)

The Indian merchant Peera was instrumental in encouraging this development. Using the hard wood mpingo (Dalbergia Melanoxylon), Manguli Istiwawo, Pajume Allale, Roberto Jacobs, and others carved in what has become known as the "tree of life".
Modern Makonde art derives from the Makonde people living on the plateau south of the Ruvuma river in Mozambique (rather than from the Tanzanian Makonde). They migrated north into Tanzania and entered into the curio trade that began to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s in Dar es Salaam and Mtwara respectively.
During this time many Makonde farmers in northern Mozambique took up woodcarving to sell and supplement their incomes, this was encouraged by the FRELIMO liberation movement, which organized cooperative marketing of these carvings in Tanzania.
Their new sculptural forms grew naturally out of older traditions of woodcarving, unlike the Tanzanian Makonde, who had no real carving tradition. Modern Makonde sculptures range from curios of the airport variety to truly fine sculptures of imagination and artistry, but the reality of their production for commercial purposes is one that cannot be ignored.
Coote discusses the materials, techniques, styles and genres. In addition to traditional carving (especially masks with typical Makonde scarification), there are three identifiable modern styles, these are referred to as ‘binadamu, ujamaa, and shetani’.

The three correspond perfectly with the characteristics sought by Western art consumers of "erotic" art a move to naturalism, giganticism and grotesqueness. Shetani sculptures were once thought to be the invention of one man,
Of course, the modern Makonde woodcarving tradition goes back well before the war of liberation, but the war and its aftermath served as a genuine impetus. The style of the figures also changed, going from the earlier naturalistic rather benign figures to more distorted, satirical or somber depictions. The so-called ujamaa sculptures or in Portuguese "unidade de povo" date from the days of the liberation struggle. The "shetani" style originated with Samaki, but was quickly imitated and soon became a popular and successful commodity in the markets of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Following independence in Mozambique in 1975, official recognition on the part of the government has further encouraged this modern tradition of sculpture.
The shetani sculptures from Mozambique differed from those in Tanzania, the latter were more sexually explicit and grotesque, being solely for the foreign tourist market. The FRELIMO philosophy also mitigated or "tamed" the influence of the male masquerade mapico (mapiko), which came to be seen as essentially oppressive to women. The mapico was "liberated" and became a cultural symbol for Mozambique; it is danced on national days and has even appeared on a postage stamp. The Makonde are, of course, famous for the wood carvings which bear their name. The tradition has existed among them for at least three centuries, when examples were brought back by Arab traders. It is likely that the tradition is much older than that.
Originally naturalistic and impregnated with meaning, the carvings are now generally more abstract, in keeping with the tastes of tourists and collectors. The one thing the carvings have in common is that they are invariably carved from a single piece of wood, no matter how intricate the design. The wood traditionally used comes from the African Blackwood tree (Dalbergia Melanoxylon), also known as "Mozambique Ebony". It is extremely fine-grained and dark in colour, and so ideally-suited for carving.

The best-known works are the 'tree of life' carvings in the ujamaa style, being intricately carved conjunctions of interlocking human figures representing both unity and continuity. Less well-known are the ritual masks, which were used by dancers who embody the forms of spirits and ancestors. Earlier Makonde carvings generally depicted more traditional themes, often relating to various deities or rituals. Even today, the Makonde produce carvings of ordinary household objects such as bowls and walking sticks, although these are seldom seen for sale. While it can be argued that the extensive commercialization of Makonde carvings has had a negative impact on artistic and imaginative quality, it has not totally destroyed originality. On the positive side, it has had the effect of securing many carvers a livelihood which they would not have been able to achieve otherwise. The major centers of Makonde carving in Tanzania are in the south-east on the Makonde plateau, and in Dar es Salaam which became a haven for Makonde carvers during the large-scale migrations from Mozambique in the 1950s and 1960s. Many Makonde migrants made their way from Mozambique into southern Tanzania, and from there to the capital, attracted by better employment opportunities and by favorable marketing prospects for their carving. 
Wallach Gallery. Figures of Makonde men, around 1970-80, one carrying a boy and a suitcase, the other a water pipe and a spear


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