Carvings are found throughout Ethiopia and often reflect the different ethnicities and cultures in the country.
Ethiopian wood carvings, made from the once abundant trees, are the most well known carvings in the country. Wood has always been worked to fulfill the needs of daily Ethiopian life - spoons, dishes, beds, and chairs were all traditionally made from black-stained wood and often adorned with pearls of silver metal. Particularly well known are the cravings of the Oromo people who live around Jimma and Wollega. They carve distinctive and elaborate stools, chairs, and beds, often from a single piece of wood. The carved chairs of this area were usually created for important members of the village or tribe. The seats of kings, queens, tribal elders, and respected warriors were always crafted with great care. Chairs carved from a single piece of wood usually feature a tripod base with three out-turned legs. The curved backs and arms of the chair are decorated with ornate perforations in geometric patterns or engraved parallel lines in v-shapes. These chairs are becoming harder to find in Ethiopia and are highly prized by collectors worldwide. Other wooden chairs are made from interlocking pieces of wood and some nails. More angular in shape, the back panels are etched with intricate motifs and the seats covered with leathers for comfort .
Carved wooden neck rests are also common from the Wollega region as well as the other southern and lowland areas of Ethiopia. The curved, bow-like top allows their owners to rest or sleep on the ground without disturbing their hair or placing their head on the ground. Head rests are used by many people in Eastern Africa and it is often thought that they help protect the sleeper by elevating the head off of the ground and preventing attacks from snakes or scorpions. Head rests used by shepherds are typically asymmetrical, and therefore instable, in order to keep the herder from falling into a deep sleep and losing his herd. Also carved from a single piece of wood, Ethiopian head rests have different shapes depending on their origin and are sometimes elaborative decorated with metal incising, etchings, and beads .
The devote Ethiopian Orthodox Christians use wood in many of their religious artifacts as well. Carvers create elaborate wooden canvases upon which painters depict the life of Christ and the saints. Typically seen in foldable triptychs or foldable, pocket-sized cases, the paintings are hidden inside intricately carved wooden cases. Many artisans and priests also create Ethiopian crosses for use in church ceremonies or worn around the neck. Although cast metal crosses seem more prominent in the church, wooden crosses are carved in a wide range of styles and used throughout monasteries. Click here for more on Ethiopian crosses.
Folding wooden bookstands are also popular among both Christians and Muslims Ethiopians. Richly decorated, they are used for study and carrying holy books. Carved wooden statuary is not as highly developed in Ethiopia as it is in many other parts of Africa. The Konso tribe is well known, however, for its woodcarvings, called waka, that symbolize the achievements of an individual after death.
Calabash, likely the first domesticated crop in Africa, is used widely for its meat and hard exterior. Ancient people throughout Africa most likely domesticated the crop to create water containers to ferry water from rivers and springs to the villages. There are many varieties of calabash grown throughout Ethiopia and their shape often dictates their use. The round calabash are halved into two pieces and used for drinking or as ladles and spoons. The elongated, pear-shaped calabashes, often known as tobacco calabashes, are used as water-pipes in some areas of Ethiopia. Hourglass-shaped gourds are also common and used for containers and larger drinking glasses. Every culture in Ethiopia has its own traditional beer recipe and calabash gourds are the standard beer mug.
Calabash gourds are used in all aspects of daily life including carrying beer, milk, butter, water, and honey; storing important grains and spices; creating water pipes; and for simple cooking and eating utensils. After harvesting, the calabash fruits are left in the hot sun to dry. Once dry they are cut depending on their intended use and often decorated with beads, cowry shells, and buttons or etched with a hot needle. Some are reinforced with natural grasses used to make level bases and covers for the containers. Calabash gourds used for transporting items often have leather straps attached for easy carrying.
In the Oromo region of Central Ethiopia, women create calabash containers which are elaborately decorated with beads, cowry shells, and woven natural grasses. Although a landlocked country, cowry shells are commonly used in Ethiopia for decoration and are said to symbolize fertility, femininity, wealth, and protection. The most intricately decorated gourds are used to serve genfo (butter porridge) only eaten during special occasions and celebrations. In Southern Ethiopia, the children of the Ebore tribe wear hats made from calabash to protect them from the sun. Throughout the pastoral Omo Valley, herders also use calabash gourds for milk containers on their long nomadic journeys.
Although less common than wood or calabash carving, carvings made from cow horn are found in villages and still used in everyday life. The simplest horn carvings are plain and unadorned spoons and goblets used for drinking beer and liquor. However, examples exist of finely carved cattle horn containers, sometimes with a carver and threaded stopper (placed at the tip of the horn) and leather straps for carrying.
Cow horns are the most commonly used type of horn since they are naturally hollow and often very large. Their hollow nature and hard exterior makes cattle horn especially good for carrying previous items like salt, gunpowder, or liquor. Cattle horns are also very common in Ethiopia where cow hides and skins constitute a major export sector for Ethiopia. Most of the rural population in the country is somehow involved in animal husbandry.
Visitors can find wood, calabash, and horn carving in...