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New interest in tribal art

An immersion into sculpting that stimulates diverse cultural heritages

By Dominic Muwanguzi

Joe Nickson is an art dealer with an unusual speciality – tribal art. His IntoAfrica Galleries at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel Gift Shop area and in Luteete, about 7kms from Kampala along Gayaza Road are brimming with masks collected mostly from DR Congo. There were human and animal masks. Nickson says there are over 400 tribes in the Congo and each tribe produced masks for specific functions and cultural festivities.

“The different masks on display here each represent a different tribe from the Congo. These were crafted according to the tradition and custom of each tribe,” he says.

The mask, as a non-utilitarian object in African traditional society was a central figure that was used in almost every festival.  The African mask as it is popularly known took different forms depending on its tribe of origin and the purpose it served.

Generally speaking, tribal African art may at least be more than 75000 years old, dating back to the stone- age era, but its prominence and influence on the modern and contemporary art scene can still be felt. European modernist art masters like Pablo Picasso, incorporated tribal African art motifs like the mask in their painting.

The Makerere Art School, the oldest art school in East and central Africa, started in 1937, built its curriculum on the subject: fusing traditional art practices like basketry and weaving from the pastoralist tribes of the Hima and Tutsi of western Uganda with sculpture from the Makonde tribe of southern Tanzania, and with western components of art.

Today contemporary artists continue to integrate a diversity of abstract or figurative elements of tribal art in their paintings and sculptures.

Still among the pastoralist tribes like Hima, Tutsi, and Dinka from Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan, headrests curved from hardwood with a bow-spaced upper-section supported by two or three legs were popular.  These were utilitarian objects. As the name suggests, they were tools to rest on one’s head or neck as they slept. But in some case they had higher motives as they enabled the sleeper to avoid tampering with their hairstyle which was often a symbol of status, gender, and age in the community.  The hairstyle was often believed to be empowered by charms of magical –religious nature and thus ceased to be perceived only as a hairstyle, but as a symbol of power that must be protected. Needless to say, when one died, the headrest was buried with him to be used in the next life.

This spiritualism is replicated in chairs and stools from the Kuba, Luba, Chokwe and Ruguru tribe of the Congo, present day Democratic Republic of Congo. The tribal chairs and stools took on the design of western chairs and stools but these showcased figurative figures on the lower part of the chair representing the breadth of leader’s concerns and responsibilities in the community. These decorative thrones, specifically from the Luba tribe served symbolically as seats of power and sites of memory for deceased Kings or Chiefs rather than as places to sit on. In particular, the female caryatids give expression to the Luba conception of the female body as a spiritual vessel that supports divine kingship. The woman plays a significant role in the monarchy as queen mother and remains a central figure not only in the activities of the Kingdom but within the smallest unit of society: the family.

Aesthetically the refinement of the female body through elaborate skin ornamentation served as a metaphor for civilisation and refinement that Luba rulers disseminated within society.

The practice of sculpting different objects intended for diverse functions by each tribe stimulates the idea of a diverse cultural heritage for the African people. The objects produced symbolized the belief in spiritualism, more so the concept of the after- life that has been passed on from one generation to the next.  They also emphasized the innovative and creative skill of the African at the time and validate the perception that Tribal African art is non-primitive because of its abstract and figurative nature.


Into Africa gallery is located both at Luteete, along Gayaza Road, 7km from Kampala and at Serena Hotel Gift Shop Kampala.



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