The Maasai and the Ndebele are African cultures living in the modern-day countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. While many continue to practice traditional ways of life, they are aware of the outside world. Today both of these cultures produce their traditional art, especially beadwork, both for their own cultural purposes as well as to sell in the tourist trade. In addition, the Maasai have developed new forms of art—primarily wooden masks and sculptures—that reflect their peoples and cultural practices.
This collar and choker are traditional women’s adornments among the Maasai. They feature cowrie shells, metal disks, and elaborate beadwork. The beadwork incorporates narok, the red-black-white color triad, which provides great contrast and is considered an ideal color arrangement. In addition, the beadwork also includes muain sidain, or the complementary colors often added to narok – in this case blue, yellow, green, and orange.
The Maasai are traditionally a nomadic herder culture that did not originally produce masks for masquerades. Instead, the Maasai more recently adopted the practice of making masks from other African cultures. Today they carve wooden warrior masks for use in rituals and ceremonies such as the adumu, a rhythmic jumping dance performed by Maasai warriors to display their high levels of focus and endurance. While these masks are usually painted black with added areas of bright color, and sometimes with elaborate headdress designs, this mask is unusual in being left completely unpainted.
This sculpture shows male and female figures that are conjoined, likely indicating a husband and wife pair. The fact that these figures are conjoined may reflect the importance of the male-female partnership, particularly that of male warrior and wife; wives hold key roles in warrior initiation ceremonies, conducting rituals such as head-shaving. While the figures are dressed simply, they both have traditionally elongated earlobes, and they wear colorful conjoined beadwork necklaces incorporating narok, the red-black-white color triad, along with other complementary colors.
Like the Conjoined Figures with Beaded Necklaces, this pair of figures depicts the male-female partnership, particularly that of male warrior and wife. The male figure has traditional garb, wearing a one-shouldered garment and holding an eye-shaped shield, as well as wearing a meticulously braided, elaborate hairstyle. The female figure has armbands and wears a knee-length skirt, possibly an olekesa, a traditional sheepskin skirt. Both figures have elongated earlobes, which are a standard of beauty among the Maasai.
Pairs of decorative carved utensils such as these are found in many marketplaces in Africa, as they are produced by different cultures for the tourist trade. Key aspects of these figures, however, reveal them as being depictions of individuals from the Ndbele culture. Both figures are featured wearing indzila, the neck rings that are part of Ndebele women’s traditional attire, which symbolize the marital bond. The figures also appear to be wearing abstracted versions of icubi, Ndbele headdresses with vibrantly colored beadwork and featherwork designs.