The Maasai, the Kikuyu, the Kamba, and other native cultures of Kenya did not traditionally do figural woodcarving before the early 20th century. The Kamba, for example, limited their woodcarving to medicinal, spiritual, or funerary objects such as medicine staffs, wooden stoppers for gourds, and horn medicine containers. Then, shortly after World War I, a Kamba soldier in the British army named Mutisya Munge returned to Kenya. An experienced carver, Munge had interacted with Makonde woodcarvers during his time in the army and learned about their naturalistic figural carving techniques using traditional hand tools. He taught these techniques first to other Kamba soldiers, then to his family when he returned to Kenya, and then to other Kamba men. They soon learned that naturalistic sculptures of African animals were popular among tourists, and the production of animal figures and other objects incorporating animals became a way for Kenyans to prosper in a depressed economy.
As with other masks made by Kenyan sculptors, this mask is a naturalistic image of an animal, and it was made to serve as a tourist-trade object meant solely for display. This differs from traditional African masks, which usually represent specific characters or spirits and are made to be worn in masquerades during rituals and ceremonies.
Because the zebra is a species native to Kenya and associated only with Africa, zebras are popular subjects in tourist-trade art. However, zebras are also important animals in traditional cultures, symbolizing what is wild in conduct and in form. The Kikuyu, for example, even incorporate zebra markings on their traditional shields. Researched by Ashley McLaughlin
Like the elephant, the leopard is a species that is native to Africa, and it serves as a symbol of power. In addition, traditional cultures consider the leopard to symbolize wealth, as wild animal meat is eaten and leopard fur is a valuable commodity.
Given the popularity of leopards with tourists, Kenyan carvers often incorporate images of leopards into their work, making leopard sculptures as well as using images of leopards to decorate practical objects. This small leopard sculpture was carved on a platform with a pointed appendage to insert into a cork, so that it could be used as a wine stopper. Researched by Ashley McLaughlin
The African elephant is a popular motif among traditional African cultures, as it is the largest land animal on earth. Symbolic of power and strength, stylized elephant images often appear in traditional art as a metaphor for rulers and other powerful individuals.
As African elephants are also popular with tourists as symbols of Africa, Kamba and Maasai woodcarvers have competed to develop naturalistic images of elephants in their works. Their work is distinguishable because the Maasai more often work in ebony, while the Kamba work in a lighter-colored wood—so these two elephant figures were more likely made by the Kamba. The larger of the elephant figures assumes an unusual pose in its raised trunk, which is difficult to carve. Both of these figures also have or once had added features such as bone tusks, to make them even more appealing.
The antelope is a highly symbolic figure in many different African cultures. Because the antelope paws the ground with its hooves, antelopes often appear in traditional mythologies and masquerade performances that explain the development of agriculture.
The antelope is also another animal that is very popular among tourists. The carvers of these figures have captured the beauty of the antelope in graceful, seated poses that are unusually well-observed for tourist-trade sculpture. Like Wooden Leopard Figure on Platform, these two small antelope sculptures were each carved on a platform with a pointed appendage to insert into a cork, so that they could be used as wine stoppers.
These souvenir spoons represent Kenya in two different ways. The bottom half of each spoon is formed out of silver and a Kenyan shilling that has been bent into the form of a bowl shape. The top half is made of ebony wood, a favorite medium of Maasai sculptures, and each is carved in the form of an African animal—in this case, an antelope and a warthog.
The Kenyan shilling was introduced and adopted in the early 20th century and features the Kenyan coat of arms, with two lions, a shield, and a rooster bearing an axe. The lions symbolize protection, the shield represents unity and defense, and the rooster and axe represent a new and prosperous life.
The antelope and the warthog are both popular animals that appeal to tourists, but they are also highly symbolic in many African cultures. The antelope is often a mythological character in stories about the introduction of agriculture, while the warthog is a symbol that reminds people to be attentive, as the warthog is a dangerous and aggressive animal.
Like the elephant, the antelope, the leopard, and the warthog, the giraffe is also a well-known and beloved African animal, and it is a popular figure for sale in the tourist trade. As this figure is made of lighter-colored wood and painted with spots, it was likely made by the Kamba culture of Kenya. Researched by Morgan Davis
This piece is unusual in tourist-trade sculpture because it is meant to be functional rather than purely decorative. The sculpture consists of a hand-carved wooden bowl that has been stained black, and the bowl sits on a platform composed of three interlocking wooden legs. While the three legs are carved and painted to resemble a giraffe’s legs, each is topped with a small sculpture of a relatively naturalistic elephant that is painted black to match the bowl. All together, this is a striking and decorative piece, but the bowl can actually be used to hold other objects. Researched by Morgan Davis