Rare Tanzanian Sculpture Graces Tubman House

EAST AFRICAN SCULPTURE, at the Harriet Tubman House, 566 columbus Avenue, through Dec. 11. 536-8610 for information.

by Jeanne Belovitch

For the second time in three years, the Harriet Tubman House Gallery is hosting an exhibit of more than 200 rare East African sculptures.

These sculptures, carved predominately by the Makonde Tribe in Tanzania, have never been displayed or sold in such a large quantity at any other gallery in the United States.

Carved from ebony trees and sanded to a silky, glistening black finish, each work has a story behind it that relates to a facet of the Makonde culture. Also part of the exhibit are works carved by the Masai Tribe, whose people live on meat, blood and milk.

Before Africa was colonized, the Masai were a tribe of relentless warriors fighting over the wealth of cattle belonging to other tribes. The Masai believed that all the cattle in the world belonged to them and went after what they sincerely felt were their rightful possessions. A Masai man and woman, each standing nearly six feet high, is a permanent exhibit at the Harriet Tubman Hoouse Gallery.

Several sculptures carved by the Makonde are titled Tree of Life. Done in various sizes, the Tree of Life is an intricate lattice of faces and people going about community activities such as fetching water and fire wood. Some of these sculptures are topped with a full-faced man who is carved out in detail below and who represents the chief of the community.

Another series of latticework is entitled Clouds. These pieces are comprised of beautifully sculpted figures which are intertwined and create a three dimensional pole in their climb. One Cloud sculpture features 21 people measuring approximately 10 inches in length. Origenes K. Uiso, the African art dealer responsible for this exhibit, as well as the first one in 1979, said that the African sky is usually filled with clouds in which the Makonde people take great delight in identifying and creating the images they see in them.

National Geographic subscribers will probably remember seeing photographs of African women with protruding upper lips. A Makonde work on exhibit is of a woman with a hole above her lip. There, she can fasten a piece of wood in her mouth in such a way that it will extend her upper lip.

Makonde women often performed this operation on themselves to make them ugly in the hope that during war, they would not be taken as prisoners but overlooked because of their physical undesirability. According to Uiso, another reason they subjected themselves to this permanent protruberance was to discourage slave traders from taking them. Also on display, but not for sale, is a mask of an African man with authentic hair. Carved out of soft Najala wood, this mask fits over the entire head and is worn in ceremonial dances, especially during the circumcision of boys and young women.

The Makonde achieved prominence as skilled carvers during World War II, when their work was discovered by East African settlers. Refined over many generations, their work shows their history of nomadism, their constant search for water and their obsession with devils and spirits.

The reopening of the Kenya/Tanzania border after more than six years last week assures that this art will continue to flourish. Also included in the exhibit are batiks and micellaneous artifacts.

Source: South End News, Boston, MA; 1983