Woodcarving is an especially important economic activity for the Makonde of Mozambique, the Makonde of Tanzania, and the Senegalese of Western Coastal Africa, among others. These cultures have developed new forms of wooden sculpture as a direct response to the tourist trade in Africa. Rather than adapting traditional works, they have developed new types of sculpture using indigenous materials, but that have been influenced by European art, either through being more naturalistic works, or being works that are stylized or abstracted in a more typically European manner. The subjects of these works, however, are undeniably inspired by everyday life in Africa.
Many such cultures have also created workshops, and once they have determined which sculptures are the most popular, they work to mass-produce figures of the same type and style to maximize their economic gain. The side effect of this repetitive production, however, is that the workshops develop distinctive styles. The Mozambique Makonde carve in a relatively naturalistic style, sometimes adding incised embellishments, but foregoing large or intricate details. In contrast, the Tanzanian Makonde make more ornate figures, with attention paid to emphasizing the more flamboyant costume elements. The Senegalese, meanwhile, freely adopt and adapt styles from other cultures, and some of their figures reflect the direct influence of European sculpture.
This Makonde figure portrays a young working woman in traditional everyday life, balancing a large vessel on her head with one hand and holding her clothing up to her chest with the other. An important feature of this sculpture is her stance; the weight-bearing left leg and the engaged right arm holding the vessel is a classic contrapposto stance and a possible reference to Western European culture. The relative naturalism and the simple grace of the figure indicates that the sculpture was made by the Mozambique Makonde.
Mozambique Makonde figures tend to be simplified, but relatively naturalistic. This woodcarving depicts a man holding a short cane, a reference to his age and possibly to his status. While the figure is simplified, the artisan did take the time to add small details such as the texture of the hair, face, and hands. These details, along with the well-observed posture, create the image of a dignified male figure.
This sculpture depicts a tall, slender female figure engaging in an activity still done in some rural communities: She is using a mortar and pestle, an implement used to crush substances into a powder or a paste. The woman is portrayed simply but sensitively, with traditional Makonde features and clothing that are detailed with delicately incised textures; thus, this figure was most likely created by a Mozambique Makonde artisan.
Unlike the other Makonde figures in this exhibit, this figure is much more stylized and less naturalistic. The woman portrayed also has elaborately detailed clothing; she wears a hat and a dress with large, wing-like shoulder appendages, and complex patterns decorate virtually every part of the clothing. These features strongly suggest that the figure represents a woman of high status, and also that the carver of the figure was from the Tanzanian Makonde culture.
Unlike the Makonde sculptures, which are made of ebony, this Senegalese sculpture is carved from African blackwood, and its style is quite different. The sculpture clearly alludes to Rodin’s The Thinker in theme, but modifies the pose and uses more simplified and stylized forms. Like Rodin’s sculpture, this figure deals with themes of introspection, contemplation, and identity, but these themes are intensified in the figure’s crouched posture, the absence of facial features, and the negative space where the torso would be. Along with the simple elegance of the carving, these qualities have made Senegalese “thinker” figures very popular in the tourist trade.