Gourd Carvers of Nigeria

The 14th century art of the Yoruba is found in the bronze sculptures

The carving tradition is now practiced on gourds and wood

Daily use gourd utensils

9th Century Carved gourds

The intricate carving is amazing!

Gourd Music in later articles

THE CALABASH (dried gourd)

We know that the gourd was domesticated in Africa over 4,000 years ago.  Nigeria, in particular the area of old Yoruba Empire, is a center for traditional gourd use and art.  The calabash (hard shell gourd) fruit is still widely used as a kitchen utensil and ritual use.  The dried gourds are carved by men and are used to serve food or drink, as well as containers for storing medicines and food. 

The smaller gourd is made into water or ink containers, or they are split and become dishes or ladles.  Large, spherical calabashes are fitted with handles and are used as primitive rafts by fisherman.  More commonly, the larger calabashes are cut in halves to hold grain and other dry materials, or they are sold to the pastoral Nigerian groups as milk containers.  These are first finished with white clay, which is rubbed over the already carved and dampened surface of the calabash.  Hausa often use the calabash as musical instruments. 

The men do most of the calabash decoration among the Hausa and Yoruba people of Nigeria and Western Africa. Gourd carving is the exclusive preserve of men of the Nigerian Yoruba.  Gourd carving predates the fourteenth century and can be traced to the area surrounding the ancient walled city of Oko-Lie, where six guilds or families of carvers are all related except one.  These Yoruba carvers see their efforts as an artistic process with precise designs and painstaking attention to detail. 

Modern items like plastic cups, bowls and food warmers have taken over many functions of the calabash in most modern homes.  The carvers hold to the belief that “In the next three or five years, modern items will no longer become fashionable because they are seasonal.  People will go back to using traditional items like the calabash.  In the nearest future, it will definitely pick up again.  It is a tradition that cannot be ignored.”

In the meantime, it is quite common for calabashes with inscriptions like “Wishing You A Happy Married Life”, “Happy Retirement”, “Happy Birthday” or “Safe Journey” to be presented as gifts depending on the occasion.  A contemporary Nigerian living room will have a couple of these gourds hung on the walls.

Governments, from local to federal, have become big customers of the carvers by ordering gourds with the Nigerian coat of arms to be presented to visiting foreign or government dignitaries.

We will discuss musical instruments and every day containers in other articles.

Internet sources for more study
Lesson Plan: Nigeria/Lessons/Calabash
Gourd Carving: 2008_11_16_archive

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