Wood Carving in Africa: An Ancient Tradition

African wood carver_2
African wood carver at work

A friend of mine learnt to carve wood when he was a child. He made his very first wooden figurine at a tender age, it was the head of a woman with cornrow braids. He had a good teacher, and learnt to understand the art of being one with the wood, carving to perfection, and of course that it required a great deal of patience. He is from a long line of wood carvers. Wood carving, making a sculpture is a very refined art. Don’t be fooled, it is not just cutting the wood, thinking of a design, then chipping parts of it, and then carving… oh no… it is much more than that, it is an art, and I would even go further to say that it is a science. Wait, I am not talking about these modern sculptures where dimensions are not respected, and you wonder if the artist was on crack or something… No… I am talking about the great art of African sculptors. Just a look at Bamileke masks and sculptures, or Senufo masks, Shona sculptures, there is so much geometry involved. I have always balled at hearing people say that Africans were not advanced, or like Sarkozy that they have not entered enough into history… I have also heard people referring to these African artists as illiterate because they have not gone to the “white” man’s school… Have you looked at African sculptures? The Mwash-a-mbooy of the Kuba? or the Kuosi, Bapi, Katso, and other masks of the Bamileke? or the Ashanti stools? or Chokwe masks? and so many others?  Do you think that whoever made these is not versed in geometry, symmetry, and precision? Do you know how much details goes into making some of these? Isn’t it odd that these advanced sculptures of a so-called backward people are still in museums in Europe generating millions of dollars every year (and these museums are only making ‘promises’ of maybe returning)?

11th Dynasty Egyptian funerary statue (Gulbenkian Museum) – (Source: Commons Wikimedia)

Wood carving in Africa is a very old tradition, and wood carving was an integral part of Ancient Egypt (and these carvings and sculptures clearly show African features – some even wear the Afro) like the Ancient Egyptian priest Kaaper’s statue, and many more. Check out the link for Ancient Egyptian wood carving. In the Cairo museum in Egypt, there is a statue of a man from the period of the Great Pyramid of Giza, possibly 4000 B.C. The expression of the face and the realism of the carriage have never been surpassed by any Egyptian sculptor of this or any other period.

Not just any wood from any tree can be carved into x, y, or z; it requires knowledge of the type of wood. The African teak wood is frequently used, but other woods such as Ebony and others are also used for carving. The hard woods are used for sculptures, masks, doors, utensils, while the soft woods are used for drums. The video below follows modern wood carvers in Nigeria. Enjoy!