Kenya's rich history in sculpture making

Artist Oshottoe Ondula when posed for a photo at Tom Mboya's statue in Nairobi CBD.

Certain communities have ancient traditions of sculpture like the Kisii, who made articles of soapstone thousands of years ago and continue to make them today.

Those of us who live in Nairobi see sculptures every day, whether at the open-air markets along Ngong Road, or the statues of our heroes and statesmen in the CBD and its adjacent parks.

As well as this, there are thousands of wood carvings and figurines that line the windows and counters of almost every jewellery or curio shop in Nairobi. These woodcarvings depict a vast array of animals and people and are loved by tourists, but to us, they have become so superfluous that we may not even notice them.

But these wooden figurines are not simply tourist mementoes and have a long and complex history. They originate as the product of the Kamba people, but more specifically, this tradition in its entirety can be traced back to a single man, as Robert Dick-Read wrote in his book Sanamu; Adventures in Search of African Art.

The beginning of commercial carving among the Wakamba is attributed to a man named Mutisya Munge who, before World War 1, was known throughout Ukamba (Ukambani) for his excellence as a craftsman.

Before the war his work was confined to traditional objects such as stools; but whilst serving with the armed forces away from home he began to occupy his idle hours by carving ‘pictures’ from his imagination, for his amusement.

These ‘pictures’ or musings of Munge were his immediate surroundings during World War 1, mainly African soldiers, and members of his regiment in the British Carrier Corps.

In his book, Robert Dick-Read continues to narrate how Munge’s “officers and other Europeans were intrigued by his carvings, and after the war, he devoted more and more of his time to producing them for sale.”

Upon returning to Ukambani, he was reluctant to share his craft with others.

This happened 100 years ago, in the 1920s, when Munge returned home after World War 1 ended in 1918. Remarkably, his legacy is still thriving.

This sale of wooden sculptures and figurines to tourists is a huge industry, and economist Watler Elkan estimated that “in the peak years of 1954 and 1955 the people of one Kamba village alone (Wamunyu) grossed at least £150,000 (Sh18,128,000) and possibly as much as £250,000 (Sh34,354,000) from the sale of woodcarvings.”

But despite the mass industrialisation of this woodcarving industry the products made, the sculptures themselves, can still be considered works of art.

Furthermore, every sculpture made follows the technique laid down by Munge, and we must understand his sculptures were the product of his transregional wonderings as a soldier in the British colonial army during World War 1, and his interactions with other Africans from different communities.

Indeed, when we look at Akamba sculpture today, we do not only still see Munge’s unique artistic imprint, but we can also still see a trace of artistic input from a certain ethnic group who live in Mozambique and Tanzania, as historian Bruno Claessens argues.

My additional research on Mutisya Munge’ Claessens says, ‘revealed he did indeed serve with the British Carrier Corps in Tanzania. While on a visit to a Lutheran mission near Dar-es-Salaam, he encountered the commercial and innovative potential of carving in a Lutheran mission and learned new forms of practice from Zaramo sculptors in the hardwoods of ebony and mahogany.”

The artistic style of Akamba figurine culture derived from the work of Mutisye Munge is unmistakable and precise, as Elisabeth Joyce Court writes; “The key characteristics of these figures are a frontal pose like a stick or column; a schematic representation of features like those of soldier (unlike the more naturalistic representation of bicycling askari). A relatively large head, often with shining eyes and protuberant ears; fine execution and finish; subtle colouring, more like a stain than paint and strong attention to detail in clothing and other aspects of adornment.”

It can be argued that all East Africans from Kenya down to Mozambique would be familiar with Munges sculptures despite their different ethnic backgrounds.