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Friday, 14 December 2018

Traditional Kenyan Art

(Betty Tobiko) - Introduction: There is no universal Kenyan art. The art present in the country is an expression of the culture of the various different communities

that reside in the country; slightly over 42 communities or there about. Art in Kenya is a translation of the way of living of the people; it is an expression of strongly held beliefs that were passed from generation to generation. It is an illustration of the way of life of the people, how the y handled matters of morality, religion, marriages, way of celebrating in times in joy and mourning and even a way of communication. Each community in Kenya is rich in artwork. The largest communities are the Luhya,Kalenjin,Kikuyu,Luo,Mijikenda,Akamba,Maasai,Taita,Ameru,Embu,Kisii,Kuria amongst others. Kenyans lived communally. The extended family was revered. Peaceful co existence was a major goal. Most art was made for exchange freely between families, to enhance relations or as a form of apology; where one had been offended. Marriages were polygamous, many and big events. Everyone participated in the process of finding a mate for a family member and when dowry and gifts (art) had been exchanged. There would be a big ceremony, where more gifts could be exchanged. Ceremonies were just innumerable; child naming,planting,harvesting,dowry,funeral,initiation ceremonies and a lot more ,dances were planned for all sorts of reasons, here you did not have to be invited you just turned up with a gift.

Drum Making

Drums were used for as a tool for communication. Different sizes of drums were beaten to call the people to gather, to announce death or at times to signal the people against danger. Drums were played majorly for dance ceremonies. Dancing to the drum is still an irresistible activity for me and any Kenyan. Among the most enjoyed drum beats is the Isukuti of Western Province and Wandidi of the Eastern province of Kenya. Kenyan drums come in sets of Bass, Alto, Soprano and sometimes even tenor, popularly known as Father, Mother and child sets. Drum making was taken seriously. It was an economic activity and still is for few. Only now sadly, a lot of industrially made synthetic drums are being sold on market, throwing the local drum makers out of market. The biggest drum makers in Kenya are the Mijikenda, the akamba and the luhya people. The people of this country wore special dancing skirts made from sisal for dancing occasions.
The wooden side of the drum handmade beauty inscription using a sharp object" title="The wooden side of the drum handmade beauty inscription using a sharp object". The wooden side of the drum handmade beauty inscription using a sharp object


Baskets were made by communities living near water masses and those in area where they could easily access reeds .Still the same though much ha s changed now because reeds are sometimes bought from these areas and baskets made from different parts of the country. This art was also practiced in dry areas with free growing sisal. The finest works of basketry in Kenya is from the Luo of Nyanza province, The Taita of Coast province and the Kikuyu people of Central province. Most of the baskets are used for domestic chores like picking beans and other cereals, carrying food and they are exchanged between families as a sign of good will. Normal sisal is used to make the baskets but colour is added to enhance their appearance. In the past colour was extracted from tree sap. The most common types of baskets are ‘Uteo’ this one is made like a tray and ‘kiondo’ made deeper from sisal, among the Kikuyu people used for multipurpose transportation of dry luggage. These baskets were given to a girl’s family during dowry negotiation as gifts too.


Gourd are were and are still used for carrying milk. Whenever Kenyan athletes win medals; which happen all the time, we welcome them at the airport with a gourd of milk. Drinking from the same gourd symbolises oneness, it was used in the past to welcome strangers into our fold. A way of telling them you are now one of us. Gourds were also used for carrying animal blood to be drunk by men at war or away on long engagements away from home. They could also be used for storing water, porridge or serving the same to visitors. Before the process of pottery took root calabashes and gourds were used for carrying water from the wells to Kenyan homes. Seeds were left in calabashes or stones introduced to make shakers which are used as accompaniment during percussion playing during dances. Gourds, calabashes and shakers are decorated by painting or passing carefully over a smoky fire to create beautiful patterns. Small calabashes were decorated and used as wall hangings for aesthetic purpose. Today gourds and calabashes are still used for the same purposes by some Kenyans mostly living in rural areas but their use has been overtaken by modern household items, they are now used in most urban home for aesthetic value.
The most common stone type is the Kisii soapstone. Many carving crafts have been made from these stone for generations. Most items made are animal carvings, food dishes, ash trays, and carvings of people, candle holders and much more. The type of carvings made evolve to meet the needs of the living generation. The main carving area is Nyanza province among the Kisii people at a place called Tabaka.The most proficient wood works were made and still made by the Mijikenda, the Maasai and the Akamba people. The most common woodworks are walking sticks, stools, animal statures, carvings of religious features and food dishes. Most of the carvings were made from hardwoods like oak and rosewood. The art of carving is executed with finesse and it is passed from generation to generation.


Beads were made for chiefs and community leaders as a form of identification, for women on their wedding days or warriors to war. Each bead work had significance. Men initiated into manhood wore two earrings among the Kalengin and the Maasai people. The ladies also wore massive amounts of beads to enhance beauty. Beads were also made specifically for virgin girls to wears around their waists. At initiation boys wore special animal skin among the Kalenjin and special beads too.