The Carvings of the Makonde

Written by Thomson Safaris

Tanzanian art is almost as fascinatingly diverse as Tanzanian culture(s—all 120+ of them!), but certain styles are especially well-known. One of the most immediately recognizable, and most widely admired, is the wood-carving of the Makonde people.

The Makonde traditionally lived along the Mueda Plateau, in southeastern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, where historians believe they originally settled during the 1700s and 1800s. Since at least that time (and likely many years before) they’ve been producing intricate carvings. The carvings often feature figures (a Makonde myth says that the mother of all the Makonde was originally a wooden carving that came to life), but they also include masks, fanciful shapes and abstractions, household items, and animals.

Traditionally, the carvings were done in ebony wood, and polished until they shone. Since 1930, though, the Makonde relationship to these works of art has changed, as have some of their methods and materials.

At that time, Portuguese missionaries were working in the region, and regularly encountered the Makonde and their beautiful sculptures. Almost immediately, they began purchasing and commissioning work, and soon, the demand for these sculptures motivated many more Makonde to produce them.

Since then, Makonde carving has developed into a full-fledged industry, and can be found at most souvenir shops throughout Tanzania. Pieces made today are often carved from coconut wood, instead of expensive ebony, and some sculptors produce additional pieces in stone or coral.

Tree of Life Makonde carving by Gibb's Farm artist in residence, Charles BiesCharles Bies, artist-in-residence at Gibb’s Farm, shows off his beautiful “tree of life” carving
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, Kimberlee Keckler

Like the early works, however, they’re always carved from a single piece of wood, no matter how complex the design.  A popular style is “tree of life” carvings, which depict intricately interlocking human figures as a symbol of unity and continuity.

While some feel the tourist trade has stifled some of the creativity seen in earlier Makonde works, it has been generally positive for the tribe’s welfare; many members make good livings as carvers, an opportunity they may not otherwise have had.

Interestingly, one of the most famous Makonde artists of the last century, George Lilanga, didn’t work as a carver; he was a painter in the Tingatinga style. It just goes to show that even if they are typecast as sculptors (of extraordinary talent, to be fair) the Makonde aren’t done creating and innovating!