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Makonde

Location: NE Mozambique and SE Tanzania
Population: 500,000

Arts: The Makonde are one of the most prolific art-producing cultures in East Africa, and their works are known worldwide. Though often identified with their wildly abstract and sensual "shetani" carvings which are produced for sale, they also have a long tradition of ritual art, which includes a wide variety of helmet masks, male and female ancestor figures, and an almost endless variety of utilitarian objects, often decorated with human heads. There are also the startling female "belly" masks which depict the female anatomy from the neck to the pubis, with pendulous breasts and a pregnant belly. They are used in an "ancestress" cult. These highly sought-after pieces are found almost nowhere else, though there are a few amazing examples from the Fon of Benin, the difference being that the Fon actually portray the female genitalia.

Masks play a prominent role in Makonde life, and mark the end of the initiation and circumcision cycles for boys, as they re-enter society as men, ready to marry. The "Lipico" masks depict a wide range of Makonde ideals, social norms, and even history, as they depict initiates, villagers, coastal Arabs, and colonial officials. They embellish these masks with human hair, insert pegs for teeth, and even whiten the eyes. Beyond that, in a quest for the reality of the human condition, they sometimes show human deformities. Their masks, along with those of the Kongo and Vili cultures of the northwestern Congo, show realistic Negroid features, unlike the more stylized faces found elsewhere in west and central Africa. Women play an important role in Makonde art and mythology. Legend has it that man carved a figure of a woman, fell asleep, and awoke to find that the statue had come to life. She gave him many children, and later was venerated by an "ancestress" cult, which was the inspiration for the belly masks.

History: The Makonde are a Bantu-speaking group who moved into northern Mozambique from their original homelands in Tanzania, near Lake Nyasa. There are still pockets of Makonde living in Tanzania today, and the two groups are separated by the Rovuma River. Despite the proximity of the two groups, they consider themselves culturally distinct, though ideas and artistic traditions are shared. Their first contact with Europeans did not occur until 1910 and, even then, European influence was minimal. Their coastal location hints at an involvement with Swahili slave traders in centuries past, although this is not certain. Recently enclaves of Makonde have been found living in and near larger cities in Kenya.

 

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