Kamba peoples, Water vessel,Mid-late 20th century
The gourd is the container of choice throughout much of equatorial Africa. Growing in a number of shapes and sizes, it is put to a wide variety of uses as bottles, lids, rattles, drums, sounding boards for musical instruments, funnels, bowls, flasks, ladles, cups and storage containers. Often the gourd is combined with other materials, such as leather or basketry, and frequently it is decorated by carving or incising.
The Kamba have a long history of decorating gourd containers, and although this art was lost for a time during this century, it is again being revived. In other regions of Africa, designs on gourds are usually created by heating a knife blade and burning in the desired patterns. Kamba artists use another technique: they work by incising the outer, often irregular surface of the gourd to create geometric patterns and stylized figures. Animals and other motifs taken from nature are cut into the vessel; then the lines are rubbed with ashes to produce a dark contrast with the light surface. The original color of the gourds is yellow, but over time, the surface darkens to a deep red or honey yellow.
This large container was probably used for storing water or beer. The dominant motif of the surface decoration, which includes stylized animals, a human figure and a tree, is a large elephant with long straight legs and a broad ear merging seamlessly into tusks and trunk. The figures are shaded with fine cross-hatching. Diamonds, triangles and checkerboard designs appear only on the neck of the vessel and within a single stripe down one side.