The tree of life – the ebony heart of Tanzania

There are many things to talk about Tanzania. It is a country that holds an incredibly unique combination of cultural and historic factors; it rose as a United Republic and placed its faith in a man who believed in community and peace. It is filled with spiritual customs and traditions, veiled by mythical spirits and beliefs.
What transpires however from all of this, is the love and appreciation Tanzania holds for its heart, its land, its animals and landscapes.

It praises and celebrates its treasures, may it be Mount Kilimanjaro – the tallest peak in Africa, its strong and proud animals, or its powerful and wise trees.
Such a close relation with its nature has signified that the most well known and traditional Tanzanian art is born by using and celebrating of one of their natural resources: the sculpting of wood.
The Makonde African wood carvings are recognised worldwide; their striking, true and natural feel are both hard to ignore and miss. Their story however, where they come from, or better, whom they come from, still remains unknown to some. The Makonde is an ethnic group that lives in the southeast of Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Originating in the Ndonde area, found in the northern part of Tanzania, they migrated south between the 18th and 19th centuries. Their artwork is created by using ebony wood, and their sculptures represent life, relationships, love, and good and evil spirits alike. The Makonde carvings are divided into various styles, each one holding a distinct direction or feeling that is vital to the wholeheartedness of the piece.

 The Shetani style is based on East African mythological creatures; the ‘shetani’ are spirits that appear in forms of distorted humans and animals. It is said that the shetani observe while a carver works, and that therefore, the final sculpture will be inspired by the spirits the artist has seen and felt during the process.

The Ujamaa style focuses on the bonds between people. Ujamaa is the Swahili word for community and family, and is widely known today as a socialist system based on equality formed in the 1960’s by Julius Nyerere, leader of Tanzania. The Ujamaa style sculptures, such as the ‘tree of life’, represent figures supporting each other, entwined together and created by one single large piece of wood.
The ebony is the traditional wood used for these beautiful and intense sculptures. Although of a light colour on its outer bark, the core and heart of the tree is where the beautiful ebony colour comes from, as well as the seed that marks the beginning of the Makonde’s art’s life.
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