TRADITIONAL CRAFTS OF THE BIJAGOS


(excerpts from "The Ethnography of the Bijagos People of the Island of Bubaque" (1978),
written by the researcher of anthropology, Luigi Scantamburlo)

 
 

The Traditional Crafts

Along with the Nalus, the Bijagos are the best woodcarvers of Guinea-Bissau. It seems that every Bijago male has an innate aptitude for this activity, but it requires a long and patient training under the guidance of one's father or other close family member. Working with a sharp knife, the Bijago artist is able to transform a piece of wood into a perfect image of an animal, a dancer, or make a kitchen utensil.

Woodcarving on the island of Bubaque developed in three main directions:

a) The religious carving
It's still the most secret and important activity. Only a few artists have the knowledge to perform it. The masks, the stools, and the statues representing their spirit, Orebok, requires knowledge of not only what kind of wood to use, but also which ceremonies are needed to cut the wood and the process of carving it. The artist secludes himself and undergoes certain ceremonies of purification.

b) Carving of utensils
The carving and shaping of oars, small canoes, and various objects for cooking is still done - such as mortars and pestles for pounding rice and palm nuts, large spoons, and dishes. Today, most of the other kitchen utensils are of metal or ceramic obtained from the European market. In the past, every kitchen object was made of a type of softwood of the Dogbane family. Tagara wood objects are still used for cooking in some religious ceremonies, such as those during initiation. Other objects artists carve include tobacco pipes smoked by most men and women, and toys for kids.

c) Carving for tourists
The artists of Bubaque have obtained economic success carving objects bartered or sold to the tourists. Their production has increased, with a continuous rise of prices and a lowering of craftsmanship. The most common objects are:

Human beings. - The most common are dancers, and also Bijago girls with their traditional grass skirts or carrying pots on their heads, mothers with children, male elders sitting on stools, young men just after initiation ceremonies in the forest, and reproductions of Europeans such as soldiers and administrators.

Animals and fowl. - The most common are the pelican, cow, hippopotamus, domestic and bush fowl, mythological fish, and the crocodile.

Other objects. - These include the reproduction of European objects they may have seen, such as the motorcycle, truck or car, shotgun, or also the famous war canoe of the Bijagos' with six, eight, or twelve oarsmen. For the tourist trade, they carve some of their objects used in sacred ceremonies. This has brought about a big change from what was traditional Bijago art, which had been directed toward religious ceremonies and the needs of everyday life.

Artists, when cutting the wood, still approach the trees with a certain awe and reverence, making offerings of wine or brandy and eggs to the spirit inhabiting the forest.

Although wood carving is the most common craftmanship in Bubaque, there are other crafts, such as wall paintings and calabash engraving. Pottery making has been completely replaced by the metal or ceramic objects introduced by the European market. Basket-weaving and mat-making has developed well because of tourist demand. Traveling bags used by the chief or by women elders while going to sacred ceremonies are especially beautiful. Basketry and mat-making are more famous on other islands, where reeds and the other materials used are more plentiful.

The painting and calabash engraving, usually performed with needle or knife, are done in geometric designs or pictures representing scenes from their everyday life or mythology, always with great realism, movement, and vitality. The most famous paintings are those on the walls of sacred huts, reproducing scenes from their mythology - such as the large fish of the ocean they recall during their masked dances, the dangerous snakes, the powerful monkey-like sorcerers, or scenes depicting the arrival of the large European ships. These pictures are made by the young boys of the villages, while young girls do the geometric designs also found on the outside walls of the storehouses.

Three basic colors (red, black, and white) are prepared with local materials:

Red color - obtained from a red ochre found in the ocean. Another kind of ochre, found in fresh-water swamps, is used for covering the hair of the boys and girls during initiation ceremonies, and for painting sacred statues.

Black - usually made from the charcoal of a particular plant. To dye the grass skirts, they use a black mud found where the mangroves grow. Black dye is also obtained by boiling the leaves of several trees, including mangos.

White - obtained by roasting the shells of an oyster very common in the archipelago, or from a calcareous white powder.

In addition to these basic colors, Bijago artists know how to prepare green, yellow (from a yellow ochre), and azure. Today, however, it is common for most artists to use paints from the European market. To give a glossy surface and protect the woodcarvings from termites, they have replaced traditional palm oil with a varnish bought in stores.

 
See Photos of the Artwork

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