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Blog / Category_Makonde Sculpture

Enter the World of the Makonde Shetani

There has been resurgence in the popularity of African art, especially when it comes to wood carvings and traditional African works of art. When most people envision African art, they are quite often thinking about the beautiful hand carvings created by the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique.
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A Guide to Family Tree Style Makonde Sculptures

One of the most popular and fascinating forms of Makonde art is sculpture – especially.  These pieces have become extremely popular today with art collectors and homeowners alike. Considering they come in many shapes, sizes, and types of carvings, it’s not surprising they are popping up all over the world!

Like any other piece of art, the history and origins of the Family Tree Style sculpture only adds to its intrigue.

Origins of Family Tree Style Sculptures

The Family Tree Style sculptures, which are also referred to as “Tree of Life,” date back to the late 1950s and an artistic style called Dimoongo – one of the eight major Makonde styles.

Professor Elias Jengo explains:

“A style called Dimoongo (power of strength), which a local political zealot later named 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.” With a history of name changes, tracking the Makonde Family Tree sculptures can be a little confusing for the average person. Dimoongo, Ujamaa, and Tree of Life all refer to the same style of art.

Significance of the Makonde “Family Tree”

Even though these carvings have been known by a number of different names, the significance and meaning of the carvings have remained the same over the years. Ujamaa means community and family. This meaning is also echoed in the “Tree of Life” pieces which speak to a common human ancestral heritage. This is why you often see symbols of support and generations of family. Overall, the piece brings out the community harmony the Makonde people strongly believe in.

Common Characteristics and Depictions

The sculptures, while they can take on a variety of shapes, forms, and sizes, have a number of common characteristics representing the symbolism and significance of the carvings. The carvings typically include:
  • A column of people, with one central figure surrounded by smaller figures.
  • One large figure at the top of the pole – often a central figure such as a tribal chief. More modern carvings typically have a female figure at the top.
  • They commonly depict members of extended family – often representing multiple generations.
  • People are often depicted climbing or holding each other up (representing support).
  • People are often shown performing traditional tasks and local work such as cooking or farming.

About the Artists and the Canvas

Family tree sculptures can be as tall as 6 feet, taking artisans up to 9 months to complete. However, they also come in many other sizes, ensuring you can find the perfect carving for your home or office decor.
  • The sculptures have become popular because of their intricate design and decor.
  • They are carved from African blackwood (also known as mpingo).
  • High quality pieces are carved from a single large tree trunk.

What really communicates the beauty of these carvings is their unparalleled, intricately detailed and delicate shapes, making these sculptures highly desirable. Please take a few moments to explore our collection of Family Tree Style Sculptures. They are fascinating pieces, deeply rooted in history. Bring a piece of Africa home with you today. Add a Family Tree Sculpture to your home or office. A unique and fascinating accent, they are also great conversation starters!

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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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