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The Makonde people are one of the five major tribes in Tanzania who originally migrated north from Mozambique to the southern Tanzanian highlands. They are internationally famous for their intricate carvings, based on Life, Love, Good and Evil and which form their beliefs about the origins of man.

The carvings are possibly the greatest art forms which originate from Tanzania and are considered the most positive and uninhibited of all East African art. For centuries their figures carved from African black ebony (mpingo) have played a central role in their ceremonies. In addition to traditional carving (especially masks with typical Makonde scarification), there are three identifiable modern styles, these are referred to as ‘binadamu (a man/woman), ujamaa (solidarity life), and shetani (devil)’. The three correspond perfectly with the characteristics sought by Western art consumers of “erotic” art a move to naturalism, gigantisms and grotesqueness. Shetani sculptures were once thought to be the invention of one man.

OnLine Africa Knowledge Foundation is located in the heart of a large Makonde community in Tanzania between Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo. Our agents know the artists and how to secure the best values whether you are seeking to purchase high quality fine traditional or modern sculptures. Or if you want high grade tourist quality items for ethnic home decor.  LEARN MORE about Makonde culture and people we can introduce you to online.



Makonde wood carvings date back for several centuries. Originally naturalistic and impregnated with meaning, the carvings are now generally more abstract, in keeping with the tastes of tourists and collectors.

Their work is both traditional and contemporary, reflecting a tribal past as well as modern response to urban life. They utilize their tribal myths and stories as inspiration for the masterful work; one carver, for instance, specializes in ghost spirits and clouds. Animal statuettes and human and demon-faced ceremonial masks are common.

Less well-known are the ritual masks, which were used by dancers who embody the forms of spirits and ancestors. Earlier Makonde carvings generally depicted more traditional themes, often relating to various deities or rituals.

The best-known works are the ‘tree of life’ carvings in the ujamaa style, being intricately carved conjunctions of interlocking human figures representing both unity and continuity. "Tree of Life" carvings depict the members of an extended family including past and present generations, gently supporting each other, generation after generation, around the family ancestor. This motif speaks to a common human ancestral heritage–all that we have achieved collectively in our various civilizations has been literally built upon the backs of those who came before. Carvings can be as large as six feet tall, encompassing the work of one carver for at least nine months. They exhibit an intricacy of design and detail which would not be possible to achieve in a wood less dense and strong as black ebony.

Aside from masks there are three main styles of carving, which are characterised by subject matter. The oldest form is the female figure, and relate to the cult of womanhood, in keeping with the Makonde creation myth in which the male ancestor of the Makonde got lonely and created a carving of a woman, who came alive. She was not just the first woman, but the first human, because the male was only a 'creature' (some might say nothing much has changed!). These carvings were carried by men for protection when travelling.

The so-called ujamaa sculptures or in Portuguese “unidade de povo” date from the days of the liberation struggle. The “shetani” style originated with Samaki (fish), but was quickly imitated and soon became a popular and successful commodity in the markets of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The shetani sculptures from Mozambique differed from those in Tanzania, the latter were more sexually explicit and stylized.

The one thing the carvings have in common is that they are invariably carved from a single piece of wood, no matter how intricate the design. The wood traditionally used comes from the African Blackwood tree (Dalbergia Melanoxylon), also known as “Mozambique Ebony” or Mpingo. It is extremely fine-grained and dark in colour, and so ideally-suited for carving. The Mpingo (ebony black tree) allows them to achieve the incredible detail typical of their work. Using the hard wood mpingo, Manguli Istiwawo, Pajume Allale, Roberto Jacobs, and others carved in what has become known as the “tree of life”.

Mpingo bark is a light color under which is a small layer of white soft wood. The heart wood, however, is very hard and varies in color from a deep red to black depending on the soil type and age of the tree. When finished, the carvings are polished and the wood quite literally shines. Again, due mainly to the tourist trade, the carvers today also use other types of wood such as coconut and some also can carve in stone and coral.

Even today, the Makonde produce carvings of ordinary household objects such as bowls and walking sticks, although these are seldom seen for sale. While it can be argued that the extensive commercialization of Makonde carvings has had a negative impact on artistic and imaginative quality, it has not totally destroyed originality. On the positive side, it has had the effect of securing many carvers a livelihood which they would not have been able to achieve otherwise.

More about roles you can play in developing the CATALOG


  1. Your submission MUST contain at least 4 high quality photos and the following information:
  2. ABOUT [Name of art ie. YORUBA ART]
  3. ORIGINS: Country, region, people, tribe
  4. History (of Art form, Tribal)
  5. Material used (specific stone, wood, why)
  6. Distinguishing characteristics
  7. Traditional v. Modern art (main styles)
  8. Theme, Expressive Motif (in general what do they depict? Ancestry, family, abstract, spirits, animals, love, eroticism, naturalism, fantasy)
  9. Traditional use: ceremonial masks, funerary, weddings, birth, etc.

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