If you are looking for traditional African sculptures and crafts then the Mwenge Carvers Market in Mto Wambu village is a great source of Makonde artwork.
© Mto Wa Mbu Village - Carvers Market
This is a huge centre where about 200 artists can create and sell their work. Many stalls are shared by a number of artists, but you will also see plenty of carvers hard at work on an open patch of ground.
The carvers are devoted to their craft and spend years developing their particular style. Some pieces will take months or years to complete. Their equipment consists of a small range of tools, plus sandpaper for smoothing and shoe polish for sealing and polishing the wood.
You'll see intricate carvings such as the 'Tree of Life' which can be as tall as a man, figurines, bowls, chests and less common ritual masks, but there are also many everyday items to purchase such as jewellery, salad forks and beautiful ornaments. Additional crafts on display include fabrics, paintings (also Tinga Tinga) and basket ware.
The Makonde people form one of the main tribes in the country. They emigrated from northern Mozambique and settled in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. Their complex wood carvings which depict aspects of Life and their traditional beliefs are well known and highly sought after.
There are 8 main styles of Makonde sculpture, but others are being created all the time as newer artists from different backgrounds join this creative movement. The Makonde sculptures encompass both traditional and modern art works.
The favourite wood of the Makonde carvers is Mpingo or African Blackwood (also known as Ebony wood). The wood is very dense and strong, with an intense colour and beautiful texture that looks very good whether it is polished or not. Mpingo is an expensive wood and invaluable to the creation of art and wind instruments, but it is also a necessary part of the wider eco-system for many reasons. Resources are now threatened and more conservation efforts are required. A local conservation body has been formed to address the issue and donations will go a long way in support of their work: blackwoodconservation.org
Shopping at the market
Haggling is part of the experience at Mwenge Carvers Market and a sense of humour is required. You are expected to take part and eventually settle on a reasonable amount. The vendors are not wealthy and have families to support, if you approach the negotiation with fairness and respect in mind you will have a better experience. Tourist prices are generally higher than those for less affluent locals.
It is a good idea to have a good walk around and get an idea of what is available and at what price. A number of stalls sell the same crafts and you may get a good price if the vendors bid against each other. If you have time on your hands you can ask a carver to make something especially for you. The market closes in the early evening and this is often a good time to get a bargain.