The sky is dirty gray and the air heavy with dust when we pull in to the AMACACOP Coop Society. As the group piles out of the van a tiny rumpled man hustles out to greet us. His eager smile is sincere and welcoming as he beckons us into the Co-op and invites us to watch the men work.
In this outdoor 'workshop' at the side of the building a cluster of barefoot men sits on the ground, each hunched over a chunk of wood.
A tattered piece of burlap marks each work space, the rough material serving as both seat and work bench. Stripped logs and tree trunks clutter the outer work arena, and between the men piles of shavings mingle with hewn animals, icons and statues.
The men chatter vividly in an alien tongue, many with homemade cigarettes dangling from their mouths. All the while their hands work busily, their eyes never leaving the object each man deftly crafts.
This is the cutting edge setting of what has become something of an exploited craft. For these are the world renowned Makonde carvers of the East Africa nation of Tanzania. In a bold move to capture a fairer return on their internationally acclaimed ebony carvings, this small cadre moved from their homeland in the south to the northern circuit safari town of Arusha to be a part of this first-ever profit sharing cooperative.
small carver
It's not common for foreigners to come to this place. In fact it is far removed from northern Tanzania's tourist shopping circuit. But we wanted to see the Makonde carvers in person and to patronise them directly rather than buy in the retail shops where they make very little for their works.
Makonde craftsmanship has no equal. The realism and life-like qualities and finely honed details in the statue and animal carvings are unparalleled; the artistic flair of the more abstract pieces is exquisite. Every detail is carefully and artistically rendered.
Yet the beauty of Makonde work truly belies the conditions under which it is produced. It isn't just the work environment, it is the tools as well. These carvers craft their masterpieces with bulky, primitive implements just as their ancestors have done for centuries.
Each sculpture is done 'free-hand' without the benefit of drawings or pictures as guides. The work is painstaking. A large piece can take upwards of three months to complete, and may require the skills of several carvers before completed.
The Makonde are one of five major Bantu tribes in this 362 830 square mile nation. Living relatively isolated on the Makonde Plateau in the southeast, they are among the least culturally affected by colonial and post colonial development.
Their reputation for cultural conservatism is perhaps best known through their ebony wood carvings and sculptures. And their work is by far Tanzania's most famous and purest art form.
Yet these carvings bear far more significance than simply art for sale. The figures, carved primarily, yet not exclusively, from ebony, have played a central role in Makonde ceremonies for centuries. Carving is so much an integral part of Makonde life that it forms the basis of their myths regarding the origin of man, as reflected in the following legend:
"In the beginning, there was a being, not yet 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 they conceived and a child was born, but after three days, it, too died. Again she said, 'Let us move to yet higher ground where the thick bush grows.' And a child was born. The child lived and he was the And once more they moved. A third time they conceived first Makonde."
The tale is a parable of the agony of creation and how the true artist must discard many of his works before he can achieve his aim.
Makonde carving also reflects woman's importance in this matrilineal society. In fact, the early carvings were based solely on the mother figure and it was not until much later other themes came into Makonde work.
Today the Makonde are internationally known for their intricate and expressive ebony work in a variety subjects ranging from wildlife to more profound and ethereal themes such as love, evil and religion.
The Makonde begin training as young as nine years old. Skills are passed down from father to son and while the Makonde as a tribe render wonderful works, individual families pass on a particular style and subject matter based on its traditions.
The primarily medium used for carving is the 'heartwood' of the ebony tree, called mpingo, which is very heavy and dark. Although the long-standing impression is that ebony is a black wood, it is in fact a deep russet to dark brown. But to satisfy the tourist belief that ebony is black, carvings are often glazed with boot polish, and this is unfortunate because it masks the beautiful ebony grain.
On some pieces, the lighter whitish-blonde outer wood and even the bark are left on for effect, giving the feeling the subject is quite literally emerging from a part of the tree.
There are several carving styles. The better-known Ujamaa style usually depicts intertwining figures woven together in what at first appears to be a confused, twisted image. But the work in fact depicts a family, with the smaller images interwoven around male and female parents.
Shaitani (devil) figures represent frightening spirits usually associated with water, trees and animals. In these swirling works certain elements are interchangeable; for example a leering mouth of one figure may also double as a foot of an intertwined figure.
More recently another 'school' of Makonde called Mawingu (clouds) has emerged. This style weaves traditional forms with graceful abstract shapes and most often represents the more intellectual and abstract subjects.
Although Makonde is best known in the ebony medium, these carvers also sculpt in stone, meerschaum, soapstone, bone and other woods. Some of the finer Makonde busts are actually sculpted in the harder, heavier stones, such as the granite-like green-grained veredite.
As the tourist trade grows in Tanzania, so too does the 'junk' Makonde market. And in any given shop, be it a 'boutique' or galvanize shed, one can find piles of mass produced work, probably done by the younger carvers still learning the craft.
These items specifically target the tourist looking for souvenirs at rock-bottom prices. Because this market is growing, well-crafted pieces are becoming less prominent. Yet the fine work that gave the Makonde their international reputation is still being crafted and passed on to the younger generation, and pride in craftsmanship still prevails. It is only a matter of the discerning buyer scrutinising the selection more carefully before making a purchase.
small carver 1

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