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Blog / Category_African Art

Soapstone Carvings by the Kisii People of Kenya

African carvings have become very popular décor items in recent years. With people taking more of an interest in global art forms, and with the rise in popularity of abstract sculptures, this type of art is popping up in homes, offices and galleries across North America.

 A particular type of African carving that is particularly alluring are handmade soapstone carvings from Kenya. While soapstone has been used for years as a carving material, it is the Kisii stone that is most desirable.

Origins of Soapstone Carvings by the Kisii


The stone is named after the Kisii people of the Tabaka Hills in western Kenya—the only place it is found in the region. The soapstone is a metamorphic rock that consists of the mineral talc. Also commonly referred to as steatite, it is known for being soft and easy to work with. While the stone was primarily used for domestic purposes such as basketry and pottery, it is now used to create handmade carvings for export. The Kisii people originally used soapstone to carve pots to carry fat, which was later massaged into the skin for protection against the sun and other elements. For many families, these soapstone carvings are their primary source of income as they sell their work in malls, galleries, markets and shops across Kenya.

Kisii Stone Stone - has become preferred by local artisans because of its softness and ease of carving. It occurs in a number of beautiful natural colours ranging from a light cream to black as well as yellows, red, lavender and grey. The color is dependent on the minerals present in the soapstone. The soapstone is used to create both functional items and works of art.

It’s used to carve:

  • Vases
  • Trays and plates
  • Bowls and pots
  • Decorative sculptures

While carvings traditionally feature animal figures such as elephants, rhinos and other African wildlife, carvers today also create contemporary abstract figures, bookends, candle holders, and many other figurines

Natural 10-inch Tall Soapstone Family Sculpture - 2 Parents 4 Children

The Soapstone Carving Process

The carving process is quite involved, and it often includes multiple people. Here are the steps involved in crafting soapstone carvings:
  1. Mining: Local miners dig a large pit by hand, about 50-75 feet in diameter, using picks and shovels. Heavy machinery is not used.
  1. Selection: Not all stone that is mined is used for the carvings. The miners sort the stone and select high quality materials for the carvings. Selected materials are then immersed in water to make it easier to carve.
  1. Carving: Carving is done by hand using a variety of tools such as knives, machetes, chisels, and files. Carvings are most frequently done by experienced carvers, with younger carvers often observing and practising their skills to refine their expertise.
  1. Sanding: The carved soapstone is washed and smoothed using sandpaper. This is most commonly done by women. Multiple grades of sandpaper are used to achieve the proper finish.
  1. Decoration: Depending on the type of piece being crafted, the piece is either left in its natural state, or it is decorated by adding color and design elements.
  1. Polishing: The final step is treating and polishing using oils, creating a professional finish and a shine that brings out other subtle features of the carvings.

Entire families are commonly involved in the soapstone carving process. Men perform the carving and shape the piece. Men or women perform the sanding tasks, and then women do the washing, drying, waxing, and polishing to give the soapstone carving its glossy finish. 

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The Ultimate Cheat Sheet:  Purchasing African Sculptures

Makonde Family Tree

The Popularity of African Sculptures - The way we choose to decorate our homes today is very different than how our parents’ homes were decorated. While art has always been an important part of décor, it is more common today for homeowners to take more leeway, often incorporating unique and eye catching pieces of art. As a result, African sculpture is more frequently encountered in home decor. Why? African sculptures have a unique look, are available expertly handcrafted and lend themselves well to becoming a focal point of a room. African sculpture and art can give your home a distinct look and feel!Subscribe to Zawadee Newsletter

 Brief History of African Sculptures - African art and sculptures are just as diverse as the continent of Africa. Design, spirituality, and aesthetics all vary based on the region, ethnicity, religion and experience of the artist. The origin of African sculptures dates back thousands of years. Even though hand carved sculptures are created by a large variety of cultures, the overarching theme or influence is the use of human and animal form in the design. Sculptures tend to be abstract; have tribal, ceremonial and ritualistic meaning; and are carved using many different materials such as wood, porcelain and stone, with wood being the most popular. Mpingo (African Blackwood) is often used. You can see from the picture - below - why the Mpingo Tree is referred to as "blackwood"! Actually, the colour can range from slightly reddish to a very dark black shade.



You will encounter the word "shetani". Interestingly, the word is both singular and plural in English! The correct Swahili word for more than one Shetani is "mashetani". Shetani are spirits of mythology and popular belief. They are mostly held to be malevolent and possess different shapes and powers. Shetani are widely represented in Makonde sculpture and are mostly found in Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique.

Let’s review what you need to know about purchasing African sculptures. Key Purchase Considerations

  • Do your homework: Dig deeper into African culture by researching the items you are interested in purchasing. The more you read, the better. There are many intricate details that you need to be aware of, and they are often specific to the region the sculpture comes from.
  • Know what you are buying: Every African sculpture has a specific meaning and symbolism embedded in the design. Be conscious of this when considering different sculptures, especially if meaning is an important factor in your purchase decision. Consider the cultural, ethnic, symbolic and regional associations of the piece.
  • Research the seller: This cannot be overstated. Always look into the seller you are considering purchasing from. No one wants to be taken advantage of, and it is more likely to happen when purchasing things that are not your area of expertise. Look into the seller, read reviews, and contact them directly if you have questions.
  • Double check authenticity: Unfortunately, fakes and replicas do exist, and people will try to pawn them off on unsuspecting consumers. If you question the authenticity of a piece, contact an expert, especially if you are considering an expensive piece.
  • Double check the size and materials: Always verify the size of a sculpture and check the dimensions to ensure they are what you expect and will fit where you envision placing the sculpture. Also, double check the material the sculpture is made from.
  • Some variation from the photo can be expected: Expect some variation from the photo when you receive the sculpture in person. Things like slight variance in color and/or minor details will appear different when you see them in person.
  • Don’t forget to factor in shipping costs: Shipping costs are to be expected for any item that is purchased online. However, many African sculptures’ shipping costs will be based on their weight. Make sure to build these costs into your budget.
  • After purchase care: One thing that many people forget to look into is how to properly care for and maintain the African sculpture once they get it home. In general, hardwood is more durable and easy to care for. Clean the sculpture according to the material that it is made from, and consult an expert for advice.
It is quite possible to start collecting African Sculpture without "breaking the bank". While it is true that some sculptures are worth thousands of dollars, it is quite possible to obtain a good piece for far less. We're always happy to help. While we may not know the answer to your question, we can usually identify someone who will. Feel free to give us a call or drop us an email with your questions.
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Lessons in African Art – 6 Quick Buying Tips

The Rise in Popularity of African Art - African art is hot these days. It is popular not only because it looks intriguing, but also because of the traditions, culture, and mythology associated with each piece. This is why you are seeing African artwork more frequently in people’s homes and offices. There has been a quite a surge in the appreciation of African artists and craftspeople!

 African Art is More Accessible Than Ever - Part of the reason African art has "taken off" is that it is more accessible than ever. The Internet has made it possible for anyone to view and purchase pieces online. African art is no longer confined to art collector’s private collections and galleries. If you are new to African art, understanding core characteristics is important and contributes to appreciating the significance of a particular piece. You need to know what to look for and what you are looking at, in order to determine if the piece is not only visually appealing to you, but also has the meaning or theme you want to incorporate into your decor.

Core Characteristics of African Art  - The following tips will provide you with a brief lesson in African art that you can apply when buying online:

  1. Diversity: African art is diverse—in fact, more diverse than most realize. This makes it very difficult to generalize. There are more than 1,000 cultural groups living on the continent. Each of the 5 main regions has developed its own cultural and artistic identity. Each region and/or cultural group has also been influenced by other cultures, depending on where they are located and the influences brought to the area by other cultural and ethnic groups.
  1. Traditional Wood Carvings: Traditional wood carvings are the most widely recognized and popular forms of African art, with masks and sculpture being the two most symbolic forms. However, wood décor and furniture have also become popular. Many of the traditional pieces are carved using African Blackwood (also known as Mpingo) and ebony.
  1. African Masks: There are three basic types of African masks that you will encounter – head dresses, face masks and helmet-style masks. These masks are worn in many different religious and ritualistic ceremonies, and each one has a specific meaning and symbolism based on appearance, design and symbols used.
  1. African Sculptures: One of the primary things you will notice about African sculpture is the unique and often abstract design elements. Most are vertical and tubular in shape, often abstractly representing human-like figures and specific themes centering on life and spirituality.
  1. Intricate Details: Every nuance is there for a reason. Carvings with smooth surfaces represent beauty and health; rough surfaces represent deformity or moral flaws. Artists pride themselves on their emphasis of high quality craftsmanship and materials.
  1. Subjects and Themes: African art has often been created to be used as part of a ceremony or ritual, rather than specifically as a decor item or embellishment. This approach significantly changes how African art is constructed. Common themes and symbolism include:
  • Abstract human and animal images
  • A man with a weapon
  • Women with their children
  • An outsider or stranger
  • A religious or mythical spirit
  • Luminosity and smooth surface designs
  • Themes of wisdom, protection, family, youthfulness, self-composure

If you are interested in African art and crafts, delve a little deeper and look for the message, the spirituality and often the story that each piece conveys. This will heighten your enjoyment of each and every piece you purchase. Please always feel free to contact us if you have a question. We may not always know the answer, but we often can refer you to someone who does..

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5 Misconceptions About African Art and Culture

Even though we are seeing a remarkable rise in popularity of African art and culture here in the Western world, it is amazing how much misinformation and misconception still exists. Let's take a look at some of these misconceptions and hopefully gain a better understanding and appreciation.

Misconception #1

Africa Is A Country

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest piece of misinformation that exists about Africa – it is not a country. It’s a continent and it is comprised of more than 50 distinct countries. Now that this is out of the way, let’s take a look at some other misunderstandings.

Misconception #2

We Can’t Do Anything To Help

Many assume that there is little we can do to help and assume the entire continent is like what we see in commercials on TV. There are many ways that we can help regions of Africa that are in need. Zawadee gives back in three ways . . .
  • charitable donations through charity: water (Zawadee donates 2% of all sales and also supports).
  • Supporting African Artisans and Entrepreneurs through micro funding. These methods help to empower African artisans and entrerpeneurs.
  • providing a sales, marketing and distribution channel for African artisans and entrepreneurs

Zawadee remains committed to supporting the empowerment of African artisans and entrepreneurs.

Misconception #3

Africa Is Homogenous

Africa is one of the most diverse continents. This diversity is reflected in the multitude of arts and unique cultures. In general, there are five main regions: North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa. Art collectors and aficionados often look for African art based on these regional divides, however, distinctly different cultures and artistic expression occur within each region as well.

Misconception # 4

Africa Is Primitive

Many people think the entire continent is primitive, poor and war stricken. Not true at all! There are many progressive areas, and African art, culture, architecture and fashion have evolved significantly over the years. While African artisans are perhaps best known for their traditional wood carved sculptures and masks, African art continues to evolve. The growing community of contemporary artists and their creativity that are on display in art shows and galleries around the world is the proof of this constantly changing, constantly developing creativity.

Misconception #5

African Art Is Cursed

Many examples of African culture have spiritual meaning and can be associated with mythological and cultural spirits, namely the Shetani. Every piece, whether mask, sculpture, carving, painting, etc., is meant to communicate an aspect of culture, history, heritage. And, as with any artistic expression, some are lighter and more holistically spiritual and some are darker - communicating a more negative slant.

Hopefully, we've helped you gain a better appreciation for African art and culture!

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Ceramics with an African Flair - The Ardmore Collection

From Capodimonte to Hummel to Lladro to Wedgwood, the world does not suffer from a lack of fine pottery. These venerable manufacturers produce modern collectibles in signature styles. Is there room for yet another manufacturer, another source, a new style? Zawadee believes that the verve and whimsy of it ranks with the settled elegance and the studied cuteness of other famous manufacturers. The magic of pottery lies in its ability to remain useful as well as decorative and to explore a variety of shapes and express myriad motifs. Ceramics combines decorative qualities with utility. Located in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, the artisans who create masterpieces that draw inspiration from the dramatic environment that includes beaches, mountains, and savannah populated by big game. The region’s northeast is home to rhinoceroses, lions, and giraffes. Colorful traditions of native peoples, such as the Zulu tribes, also add inspiration!

 The Origin Of South African Art

Art in South Africa goes back 4,000 years to dramatic cave paintings created by the hunter-gatherer societies that populated the region until displaced by colonialists in the 1800s. Artistic appreciation took a distinctly European turn in the early colonial era as artists painted and sculpted their visions of the newly discovered territories replete with exotic flora, fauna, and people. That European influence continued into the 20th century with Cubism, Impressionism, and Expressionism that ranged from cool, serene, and distant to bold, vivid, and personal. Art in the latter half of the 20th century adopted a more intimate focus, and Western society largely ignored native artists. Even the European-born and classically trained artists who brought their Western ideals to South Africa could not escape the impact of African forms on their creations. The melding of European craftsmanship with African verve and motifs created a distinctly exotic, exuberant, graceful, and even whimsical style that finds wide acceptance and appreciation today.

Natural Forms

South African art echoes the plants and animals indigenous to the continent’s sub-Saharan expanses; it pays homage to nature and the earth from which the raw materials of pottery come. Much of it favors visual abstraction, which applies well to the design practical objects, such at pitchers and platters and candlesticks. As dramatic and bold as the continent itself, it captures attention with fluid forms, bold colors, and rhythmic patterns....

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The patterns found in nature and in everyday life make their home in the ceramic bowls, jugs, vases, platters, and other objects produced by the Ardmore Studio. Glazes draw the eye with lush color and expressive detail while pottery molded into realistic or fanciful shapes add fluidity and energy to the finished hard forms. Until one sees the incorporation of these shapes and patterns, one cannot understand how natural forms apply to our lives.  

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