Makonde Art, Sculpture & Carving

Often, when people think of African art, they are thinking of Makonde sculpture. The Makonde people traditionally lived in southeastern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.

Many Makonde sculptures are carved from a single block of wood, no matter how complex the design! The "Tree of Life" style usually depicts intricately interlocked human figures as a metaphor for unity, community and continuity.

Makonde Sculpture | Tree of Life | Art Sculpture and Carving

The Makonde Creation Myth says that the very first Makonde settled on the Ruvuma River. He wasn't yet a full human being and was very sad as he was starving and quite desperate.  One evening he carved an image of himself from wood. In the morning, the figure had come alive as a woman. In order to please her, he bathed himself and took care of his appearance. Sadly, all the children they had while living along the Rivuma River died. Only when they moved to the semi-arid plateau were they able to raise children and have a good life together.

Early Makonde carvings were functional items - hair combs, household necessities. Later the carvings became more expressive and decorative in nature.

Makonde Hair Combs | Makonde Art Sculpture and Carving

There are 8 major styles of Makonde sculpture:

  • Dimoongo (or Ujama) - representing the power of strength
  • Shetani - probably the most popular style often portraying evil or impish spirits
  • Mawingu - usually depicting metaphors such as a human like figure holding the moon in one hand and the earth in the other
  • Giligia - a form depicting traditional beliefs
  • Kimbulumbulu - anthropomorphic, abstract in form
  • Mandandosa - representing evil spirits who are kept by sorcerers in order to inflict harm on others
  • Tumbatumba - gourd-like carvings with incised patterns akin to traditional Makonde tattoos


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