Akamba of Kenya Keep Art Alive

Published on 30th August 2010

Akamba people alongside other central Bantu speaking people are believed to have originated in the current Democratic Republic of Congo and migrated to East Africa across Tanzania border. They settled around Mount Kilimanjaro before migrating further to the settle in the plains of Nithi at a place called Kiima Kya Kyeu (Mountain of White). Due to frequent conflicts in the 16th century with the neighboring Maasai people, the Akamba further migrated to Chyulu Hills a place they purported to be safe. Due to persistent drought, they further moved to Kibwezi plains. The Akamba live in the semi-arid Eastern Province of Kenya stretching east from Nairobi to Tsavo and north up to Embu. This land is called Ukambani.

The oldest form of Kamba artistic expression have been engraving and painting of calabashes or gouards. This art, mainly done by women, served both to embellish and imbue the vessels with the mystic or spiritual meaning.

The Kamba are nowadays most known for African black wood carvings, although this is a very recent art form. They were introduced to wood sculpturing by Mutisya Munge who had served in the colonial Carrier Corps in Tanzania during World War I. There, he came into contact with Zaramo carvers, who had themselves been influenced by the Makonde carvers. Munge collected Zaramo models, and on returning to Kenya, took up carving as a full time occupation. Following Munge’s efforts, a booming trade in carving developed at a small town of Wamunyu along the Machakos- Kitui highway. It is estimated that about three thousand people many of them of youthful age, eke out their living from wood carving. Many more carvers are located throughout Ukambani, and at the coast where they sell to tourists.

Akamba are the most highly organized and productive art movement in Kenya and East Africa region. They produce an enormous line of hand made artifacts. At the carving centre, labour is divided between wood merchants, carvers and finishers. Wood is usually purchased ready cut into logs of 4 to 15 inches or more. Carving is executed with tools local tools from scrap metals and timber. Some artists work on order but many simply mass-produce carvings and stock them hoping to sell eventually. Workers who work in assembly lines of productions often receive set wages for producing a number of carvings per day.

The first step on production line is to select a chunk of wood considering the approximate size and shape of the figure to be created. The shape of the wood may also influence the choice of the figure to be designed. Hard wood are more difficult to shape but have better luster and longevity whereas soft wood are easier to curve but less resistant to damage. Detailed figures require hard wood with fine grain such as African Black Wood.

Once the wood has been selected, a sculptor begins with general shaping process using hand made gouges of various sizes. For harder wood, a sculptor use saws, chisels and mallets, while on smaller ones, knives of different sizes are used. Sculptors always carve across or with the grain of the wood as a basic principal.

Once the general shape has been achieved the sculptor uses a variety of tools for creating details. A veiner or fluter may be used to make deep gouges in the surface. A v-tool is used for making fine lines or decorative cuts.

The method used on finishes depends on the required quality of surface required. The texture may be left by shallow gouges to give life to the sculpture surface. Many carvers, buyers and collectors prefer this tooled finish. If completely smoothened surface is priority, it is done using tools such as rasp, a flat blade with a surface of pointed teeth. Rifflers are similar to rasps but smaller, double ended and of various shapes for working in folds or crevasse. The finer polishing is attained using filing and abrasive paper which comes in various sizes of grain.

A finished sculpture is then sealed and coloured with a variety of natural oils such as walnut or linseed oil. These protect wood from moisture and dirt. It also imparts a sheen to the wood, which by reflecting light, helps the observer appreciate the form. Glossy varnishes are rarely used. Objects made out of wood are frequently finished with a layer of wax which protects the wood and gives it a softer sheen. A wax finish is comparatively fragile though and is only suitable for indoor carvings.

The most common materials used in Akamba carvings are locally available woods from trees such as African black wood (Delbergia melanoxylon), African ebony, rose wood, mahogany, teak and jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia). Finishes are always coated with wax, oil colour and varnishes. Other sculptors may require adornment with beads, leather metallic decorative pins, metallic clips, fibers and ivory.

Akamba carvings range from figures of various sizes and shapes. The figures are carved keenly detailing basic curves but maintaining accurate shapes and proportions. Very accurate lines and textures are shown giving the figures life. Natural colours of materials are maintained when a thin layer of wax and oil is applied giving the product a natural aesthetic value.

The carvings maintain laws of art and design.  Most Akamba carvings are in proper shapes and proportions that are enhanced by harmonious movement and rhythm created by lines, shapes and decorations. A scene of a predator killing a prey can be depicted with very accurate movement and energy involved. Such scenes at times are left on unrefined wooden ground and backdrop but concentrate emphasis and finishes on the subject, which brings unity that controls the perception of  the sculpture.

Akamba wood carvings have very strong denotative messages. A mask for example carries a clear spiritual message just like a stool may portray elderly values from the way it is decorated. Connotative values are scanty in most of the Akamba carvings because of the direct imitation from nature and the environment. Most of the reproduced forms do not communicate much about the period in which the carvings are created. They are not influenced by cultural trends, in either music, culture or even dance. They do not respond to any social or political change. Mass production destroys individual styles and gives rise to unscrupulous business. Middle business dealers claim ownership and even claim to employ Akamba artists who produce the work.

Since Akamba carvers are inspired by the arid semi arid region in which they live, most of their subjects are prominent animals such lions, elephants, giraffes and other cultures exposed to them like the Maasai people. They are further inspired by the market demands of such kind of carvings since most of the buyers are people visiting Kenya.

Repetitive production of carvings lowers their values and quality. Buyers, collectors and general audience need a variety of subjects, styles and Messages and meanings. Every carving should tell its own story. Replication of these carvings is good for mass demand but dilutes the very intricate value of Akamba art for prosperity.

The Kamba sculptors have formed cooperative societies for purposes of proper management and improved product. The management sources for raw materials, markets and supports artists with loans for personal development. Some societies have over 350 members all working in the same shade. Ten percent of the proceeds from individual work once sold is retained by the society management for administrative purposes and also part of it retained by the society account to be issued out to members in form of soft loans. Some societies get some grants from the government to enhance operations and products.

Small scale Kamba sculptors who run small cottage workshops in towns and cities often use mobile communication technologies to transact business. It is now common for artists to receive orders, make purchases and  receive payments through mobile phone money transfer services available locally.

Akamba sculptors have evolved into huge companies that manufacturer and export fine wood carvings, animal sculptures, decorative accessories, and fancy customized goods mainly to foreign markets. This is in the effort to diversify into other areas of craft to be able to remain in business. The companies have developed websites where they market and sell their carvings online. Amongst the most popular products are the "big five" (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard); a variety of human sculptures; realistic and abstract African art, masks, stools, and decorated African wooden utensils (bowls, spoons, stools, walking sticks) that are fancied by both local and  foreign markets.

Akamba Handicraft Cooperative Society Ltd has 3000 members and 2000 sub-contracted sculptors in their in-house workshop and showroom located on Airport Road, Mombasa. It exports 30% of their products to Europe, Japan, North America, and South Africa and sells 30% in their Mombasa showroom. The remaining 40% is sold to other curio vendors in Kenya. Shipment is done using currier companies and payments received through telegraphic money transfers keeping abreast with competitors in the global market through information communication technologies available.

By Adams Namayi Wamukhuma,
Design Consultant.

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