Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project launches the exhibit, “Makonde: Art and Community” to highlight the stunning Blackwood carvings of the Makonde people of Northern Mozambique and southwest Tanzania.
Since the 1960’s, Makonde carvings have been highly sought after, decorating thousands of living rooms and dozens of museums across Europe and North America. The high demand in western countries for these works of art have even influenced the themes chosen by the carvers themselves, leading some to call it a “blending of African and Western culture”. Nonetheless, deep traditional cultural roots underlie the artwork, which this exhibit reveals.
The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project opens this exhibit paying homage to Makonde art with its modern western influence, but at the same time, also acknowledges the much earlier and darker historic influence of the North American slave trade on the Makonde people, especially that of the Newport slave trade.
The Makonde people of Mozambique living south of the Rovumba River and those living north, in Tanzania, occupy the high plateaus. They lived in isolated, sparsely populated hinterland, often purposely to avoid slave traders, but nonetheless lost untold thousands to the holocaust of the 18th and 19th century slave trade. But generations later, their descendants carved these works of art from African blackwood. While some of their ancestors may have sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas as captives, today these sculptures arrive in Newport as homages to Makonde family, community, and cultural regeneration.
“Ujamaa” is the Swahili term for “family” or “unity”, and fittingly, is a frequent theme in the carvings. Also called “Dimoongo” (“tree of life”), it is but one among eight styles of Makonde carving, all of which deliver messages of familyhood, equality and continuity across the time and space separating East Africa and Newport.
The Dimoongo, or Ujamaa style (see image 1) was pioneered by Roberto Yakobo Sangwani, who, like many Mozambicans, migrated north to Tanzania in the 1950s. Originally depicting wrestlers carrying a champion on their soldiers, it later transformed to a family tree, headed by a female figure. Makonde traditionally are matrilineal, with kinship defined by the female. Later, in the 1960s-70s, the art Tanzanian President Nyerere’s Ujamaa Party adopted it as a symbol of national political unity.
Shetani style (image 3) appeared in the 1960s, as distorted or grotesque figures of humans and animal spirits of different forms. Shetani means, “little devil” in Swahili, and these carvings occasionally depict scenes from old Makonde folktales, deeply rooted in Makonde oral tradition.
Giligia is a style initiated by sculptor Chanuo Maundu, based on Makonde traditional beliefs. Deriving from the Makonde word, kuligia, meaning “to be startled”, giligia projects the fear experienced walking in the woods, often depicted by a protruding eye or teeth.
Other styles common in Makonde art incorporate the common rituals of daily life, such as work, and fetching water in the dry climate of the Makonde Plateau. Family ties are deeply ingrained in some pieces, such as women carrying and nursing infants (image 4).
There is a rich tradition of mask making, particularly amongst Mozambican Makonde, including mapiko head masks, breastplates and other traditional masks. One authority notes, “Mozambiquans use a variety of masks during their rituals and festivals; the Tanzanians use a facial mask during their famous stilt-dances but no others.”
Commercial art is also common among Makonde pieces, evident in utilitarian objects such as chairs, jars, pots, and candlesticks.
History of the Makonde
The Makonde people trace their origins from the Bantu-speaking people of south central Africa. They speak variants of the Bantu language group: ChiMakonde in Tanzania, and Shimakonde in Mozambique, as well as Swahili and other languages. The Rovumba River, which marks the border between the two countries, separates the community in two. They share a common history and ethnic origin, but both groups are distinct linguistically and culturally. They are traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal, that is, descent is traced through female lines, and husbands relocate to the wives’ clan when marrying. Women raised crops and made pottery, whereas men have traditionally created carvings. Largely isolated until the 20th century, Makonde resisted European colonialization and Christianity, and practiced traditional African religions, more so than Islam.
While best known today for their modern art, they have in earlier times been famous for their stunning body piercing, tattoos and scarification. These practices have been associated with coming of age rituals for both boys and girls. However, after changes brought by decades of colonial struggle against the Portuguese, a war of independence and recent economic globalization, the traditional practices of matrilineality, piercing and tattooing have become less common.
Newport Ties to Mozambique
The ties between Newport, Rhode Island and the Makonde Plateau of Mozambique are deep and harrowing. Between 1793 and 1806 at least twelve slave ships left Rhode Island for the 8,000-mile voyage to Mozambique, purchasing over 3,000 captives, delivering them to slavery in Uruguay, South America, and Cuba. Almost 500 died on the Atlantic voyage – most of disease, some during insurrections. The familiar names adorning the streets, historic colonial homes, and memorials of Newport and Bristol today were the same names that financed the slave voyages to Mozambique: Caleb Gardner, William Vernon, Peleg Clarke, George deWolf, Jacob Smith and James Brattle. On one voyage, Gardner and Vernon sold 214 slaves for $48,565, which had a value equivalent to $13.4 million today.
The ravages of the East African slave trade put the Makonde people in the cross hairs of the commerce, being on the Rovumba River – a key link in the caravans of captives moving from Lake Malawi down to the coast of Mozambique for sale to Arabs and Europeans alike. Even more than American or Portuguese slavers, the French bought the captives for their plantations in nearby Mauritius and Reunion islands. Slave traders of the Nguni tribe caused the Makonde to scatter to lowly populated areas. Over one million Mozambican captives were drained from the country in the 19th century to feed the slave trade. Ironically, the British closure of the West African slave trade supply in 1807 fueled much of the 19th-century explosion in Mozambique trade, as slavers sought out new supplies. Northern Mozambique, including the Makonde region, was especially impacted during the first half of the nineteenth century.”
Nonetheless, the Makonde people survived and eventually thrived. Today they continue their unique and striking cultural traditions through their carvings and other works of art, sharing it with the world.
 Tore Saetersdal, “Makonde carvings: Cultural and symbolic aspects”, in The Making of a Periphery: Economic Development and Cultural Encounters in Southern Tanzania, edited by Pekka Seppala and Bertha Koda (Stockholm: Nordic Africa Institute, 1998), 285.
 Harry G.West, “Villains, Victims, or Makonde in the Making? Reading the Explorer Henry O’Neill and Listening to the Headman Lishehe”, Ethnohistory, 51:1 (2004): 12.
 Kefa M. Otiso, Culture and Customs of Tanzania (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2013), 108.
 Saetersdal, 1998, 294.
 Prof. Elias Jengo, “Background of the Makonde sculpture”, http://www.tanzanian-art.de/service/the-makonde-by-prof-e-jengo.html, accessed 5-Aug-2017.
 Tore Saetersdal, “Symbols of Cultural Identity: A Case Study from Tanzania”, African Archaeological Review 16:2 (1999), 130.
 Peter Kraal, “Makonde”, in Coding Participant Marking: Construction Types in Twelve African Languages, Gerrit J. Dimmendaal, Ed. (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2009), 281.
 Saetersdal, Makonde, 291.
 Jorge Dias, Margot Dias, Manuel Viegas Guerreiro, Os Macondes de Moçambique (Comissao Nacional Para as Comemoracoes dos Descobrimentos Portugueses Instituto de Investigacao Cientifica Tropical, Lisboa), 21.
 David Eltis, “A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, http://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/essay (accessed 7/29/2017).
 Eltis, op.cit. For Samuel Brown, merchant of Newport and Boston, see “Guide to the Samuel Brown letter, 1788”, Redwood Library, Nowport.RLC.Ms.570. For James Brattell, captain and shipowner, see Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume III: New England and the Middle Colonies (Washington:Carnegie Institution,1932) , 338, and Volume IV, 523; and “Jonathan Gibbs House”, Newport Restoration Foundation, https://www.newportrestoration.org/preservation/historic_houses/details/49-jonathan_gibbs_house, accessed 7/28/2017; and “Deposition of Col. George Irish in the case of Samuel Freebody vs. James Brattle”, RIHS Manuscripts, Mss 9003, Vol.16, 102. For Jacob Smith, see George Champlin Mason, Annals of Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island, Volume 1 (Newport: Evans, 1890), 219, 247, 264, 332.
 Samuel Chace, “Account of Sales of the Ascensions Cargo of Slaves and Buenos Ayres for Account of Messrs. Vernon Gardner & Co.”, 1798, New York Historical Society, nyhs_sc_b-02_f-02_006-001. Dollar conversion from Samuel H. Williamson & Louis Cain, “Measuring Slavery in 2016 dollars,” MeasuringWorth, 2016, https://www.measuringworth.com/slavery.php accessed 7-Aug-2017.