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Cleverest of the Clever: Coconut Craftsmen in Lamu, Kenya

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Abstract:

Kenya's low GDP and high unemployment rates have led to widespread development of an informal economy known colloquially as jua kali (Swahili for "hot sun"). Field research conducted in Kenya focused on understanding the evolution of art forms within the informal sector, especially in response to the international tourism industry. Tourism is the primary non-extractive industry on Lamu Island and the presence of a touristic crafts market has nurtured a vibrant creative environment. One craftsman, Mũrage Ngani Ngatho, is credited by his peers as developing coconut crafts in Lamu, one of the most important genres of tourist art created on the island. By adapting woodcarving techniques to a more locally abundant raw material, Mũrage's innovation has become a recognized feature of the craft market in Lamu. Coconut crafts serve as important signifiers to consumers, reminding them of the place where they acquired the object, while also possessing intrinsic aesthetic merit. While explicating this type of carving as an emerging genre of modern craftsmanship, the article analyzes the cultural significance of coconuts to these artisans and contextualizes their work within the socioeconomic environment that shapes their creations.

Keywords: COCONUT CARVING; INFORMAL SECTOR ARTISANS; JUA KALI; KENYA; LAMU; TOURIST ART

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/174967808X379416

Publication date: November 1, 2008

More about this publication?
  • The Journal of Modern Craft is the first peer-reviewed academic journal to provide an interdisciplinary and international forum on the subject of craft. It addresses all forms of making that self-consciously set themselves apart from mass production— whether in the making of designed objects, artworks, buildings, or other artifacts.

    The journal covers craft in all its historical and contemporary manifestations. This ranges from the mid-nineteenth century, when handwork was first consciously framed in opposition to industrialization, through to the present time, when ideas once confined to the “applied arts” have come to seem vital across a huge range of cultural activities. Special emphasis is placed on studio practice, and on the transformations of indigenous forms of craft activity throughout the world. The journal also reviews and analyzes the relevance of craft within new media, folk art, architecture, design, contemporary art, and other fields.

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