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Background information

This section contains some background information on the Makonde and their arts. We decided to give a very limited overview- this is by no means complete.

At the bottom of the page, we list a number of books and websites for further reference. Also, you can contact us for further details.

Makonde are Bantu speaking people who live in both northeastern Mozambique and southeastern Tanzania. The Makonde clans originally lived in Mozambique. Due to a lack of land and food, some of them moved to Tanzania in the middle of the 20th century. Their economy is still primarily based on slash-and-burn agriculture
, supplemented by hunting; corn (maize), sorghum, and cassava are the major crops.

The economic and social importance of women is still great in Makonde society. The women are considered to be creators of the clans, though one cannot speak of a total matriarchy. The Makonde people still follow their tripartite view of the world, consisting of the sky -where the gods live-, the world of spirits and the human world.

Woodcarving is an important part of Makonde life, both in ancestor worshipping and in their own myth of creation. When the Makonde moved to Tanzania, selling woodcarving became an important means of income. In the late sixties designated craft shops were set up, aimed at  providing the artists with a working environment.

In the Western world, the Makonde are well known for their lightweight wooden Mapiko masks, used in male initiation rituals. As you will see on this website, their is much more to Makonde art then these traditional Mapiko masks. We focus mainly on contemporary ebony woodcarvings.

The Makonde statues are made from ebony wood, coming from Dalbergia Melanoxylon. This tree, locally called mpingo, is native to the dry East African coastal plains. The heart of the tree is very heavy (dense) and has a deep brown to black colouring. The barch is much lighter coloured. The hardness, durability and colour of the core make ebony wood perfect for sculpting. Artists and dealers often polish the wood with shoe polish (or better, bee's wax or line seed oil) to get the ebony's glossy shine. Recently a number of carvers use softer types of wood, mainly due to scarcity of the ebony wood.

Besides the female ancestor worship statues (Nungu cult) and the traditional Mapiko masks, there is also modern art. Three styles of modern Makonde wood carving can be identified:

  1. Shetani
    Shetani is Swahili for 'little devil'. According to the Makonde, shetani are creatures that neither human nor animal. They occur in five forms: human, mammal, fish, bird and reptile. Shetani are believed to be still around, though most artist never actually saw one (Many claim that their parents and teachers did encounter shetani). The sculptures are often heavily deformed giving it an abstract appearance. A large number of different shetani exist, each with their own purpose and powers (not always evil).

    Shetani sculptures are said to be introduced in the early second half of the 20th century. The shetani carvers are very imaginative and creative. True master carvers excel in creating surprisingly challenging pieces.
  2. Ujamaa
    Ujamaa is Swahili for the ideology behind Tanzania's socialist politics, back in the 1960's. The name ujamaa is given to this style during a 1967 exhibition. Before this the style was referred to as dimingo (Bantu for strength). The ujamaa sculptures are characterised by poles of people, displaying everyday activities. There is always one big figure at the top of the pole, nowadays often female.
  3. Mawingu
    Mawingu is Swahili for 'clouds'. With this style, the aim is not to depict a clear image but more to work with forms, inspired on the early morning clouds. It is nearest to the western conception of modern art.

The artist we present live in the surrounding of Dar es Salaam. They live in small villages along the coast and visit the city whenever it's necessary to sell their pieces. Unlike the carvers that cater solely for tourists, the artists presented here have irregular contact with their buyers (they seldom sell directly to the public).

There is a very clear distinction between original pieces and the pieces which are mass produced for the tourist market. If you are in Dar Es Salaam, be sure to visit the Mwenge village to see the mass production of tourist sculptures.



  • Makonde, Kirnaes and Korn (1999), Rhodos ISBN 8772457732.
  • Modern Makonde Art, Korn (1974), Hamlyn.
  • From Ritual to Modern Art, Tradition and modernity in Tanzanian sculpure, Ewel and Oudwater (eds. 2001), Mkuki na Nyota publishers ISBN 9976973853.
  • Host of Devils: The history and context of the making of Makonde spirit sculpture, Kingdon (2002), ISBN 0415277272.
  • Patronage and Makonde carvers, Kasfir (1980), in African Arts 13:3,67-70.

More information:

  our email is info@makonde-art.com