Where are are the calabash carvers of Yorubaland? Do any still operate at Akesan market of Oyo? Funke Osae-Brown wrote an in depth article of her visit in 2008. Highlights below:
[The calabash] carvers are situated behind the huge palace of the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, the custodian of the Yoruba tradition. Out of the long rows of stalls occupied by the carvers, it is a rude shock to discover that only a few stalls are taken, since Oyo is known as the home of this primeval craft..
….Baba Ibeji works skilfully on one of the unprocessed calabashes strewn on the ground. …… With utmost concentration which only a craft like his deserves, he begins to trace out creatively, Ose Sango (the symbol of Sango, the god of thunder). He moves to open a rusted can, picks up an overused chewing stick and begins to paint the image, carefully tracing out the lines. He smiles with satisfaction as he puts the ‘brush’ away and places the calabash on a raised platform in the sun to dry.
Origins and Ancient Symbolism
The craft of calabash carving started from Oyo Ile, says Baba Ibeji. That was what the modern-day Oyo town was called at the time. It was a time when skilled carvers used to carve white calabashes for the Alaafin and his chiefs, including other Obas in the environs. Ancient Yoruba gods served as a good source of inspiration. And symbols of gods like Ogun, Obatala, Osun, among others, were commonplace designs creatively crafted by the carvers on their works.
In addition, different imageries such as masquerades, Edun, (the image of the god of fertility), Odu and Ese— white strokes marked on the Ifa board during divination— were common images drawn on the calabashes.
Modern Religious designs
Today, such designs are rarely sought after by consumers because of varying religious beliefs. No doubt, the incursion of modern thoughts has influenced the efficacy of the Afinna, which has produced more modern designs. Beautifully carved calabashes with different religious inscriptions like ‘Jesus Never Fails,’ ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’, ‘Such is Life,’ ‘Happy Home,’ ‘Happy Married Life,’ hang on the walls of Abdul Raufu Ade Olaniyi’s store at the Owode area in Oyo.
As the secretary of the Calabash Carvers Association of Oyo town, Olaniyi’s expertise traverses many crafts like Sekere (local cymbal), Baata and the talking drums. He explains that civilisation has introduced a new phase to his craft.
“There are inspirational quotes carved into those ones hanging on the walls,” he says as he points at the moth-ridden wall. “We have the image of the map of Africa on the calabash. There are other designs like bell, common in religious circles. These are all on the calabash in different forms. There are some which carry the handshake design on them. What our fathers did not add we have included in the designs, because some images are no longer fashionable. There are other designs that people consider attractive enough and they buy them,” he adds.
Apart from the map of Africa and Nigeria, other designs come largely from the thoughts of the carvers. “The moment we are set to work with the Afinna, we look at the calabash and think of what design is most appropriate for it. The Afinna guides us on what to do which looks exactly like what we have in mind.”
Functional and ceremonial uses
The uniqueness of this beauty makes the other forms of the ornamented calabash, one of which is the Igba Ademu (a calabash that comes with a base and a lid) a functional saucer in the king’s palace and during traditional ceremonies. It is used by those conferred with chieftaincy titles to carry kolanuts and bitter kola for traditional rituals. It is also used for other traditional ceremonies in Yoruba land like the famous Osun Osogbo festival. The specially carved ones are employed by the Alaafin of Oyo to serve Kolanuts for his guest because of the beauty. “Traditionally, that is how it is done and it will never change. We do the ones for the Alaafin on special orders. About 3, 000 pieces were ordered at the last Osun Osogbo festival,” explains Abdul Ganiyu Alao, a carver at Owode.
Unfortunately, other modern items like plastic cups, bowls and food warmers have taken over the functions of the calabash in most homes. “In the next three or five years, modern items will no longer become fashionable because they are seasonal. People will go back to using traditional items like calabash. In the nearest future, it will definitely pick up again. It is a tradition that cannot be ignored. I’m sure by the time the market picks up again, we will sell a piece of the Igba Ademu that is currently N300 for N1, 500 or more,” observes Alao.
Nowadays, the contest is not only between decorated calabash and other more preferred modern items, as some consumers find the unprocessed ones more useful than the decorated ones. Modernisation has affected the craft in the sense that what calabashes were used for in the past are now being taken over by plastic bowls, cups, among others. In the days of yore, ornamented calabashes were presented as gifts to the bride but today, coolers, cups, plastic fans, and other sophisticated gadgets like DVD players, Plasma TV sets, refrigerators, top the list.
“Many people regard the carved ones for mere aesthetics, but the unprocessed ones perform several functions. For instance, they are used as serving plates in the more local areas, soap cases, and for drinking water or palmwine.”
Well designed calabashes are usually the centre of attraction for tourists who throng the Osun Osogbo festival annually from other parts of the world. These tourists buy traditional items like the calabash as souvenirs. But Nigerians who reside abroad find a lucrative trade in the craft as is the case of Baba Brazil.
“The unprocessed ones on the floor,” Olaniyi explains, pointing to piles of calabashes placed by a corner in his store, “are ordered by someone who is taking them to Brazil. A Nigerian who lives in Brazil ordered for them. He is coming for them by the end of the month. We nicknamed him ‘King of Brazil’. He comes in once in two years. We usually pack the calabashes in crates used for exporting goods which he takes to Wharf at Apapa in Lagos.”
King of Brazil, who is a native of Abeokuta in Ogun State, is the only major customer that Olaniyi currently has. Massive patronage is what the carvers don’t enjoy at all as they only sit in front of their stalls daily waiting for one or two people who walk in to buy from them.
The demand for food crops like maize and cassava has discouraged farmers from planting calabash on their farmlands. This has an adverse effect on the carvers. Calabash no longer abounds in the farm like it used to be. “Calabash is a crop that is planted once a year and the farmland becomes useless thereafter, because farmers can no longer plant any other crop on it. But if you plant maize, you can plant other tubers like cassava, yam, cocoyam and others. This is one of the reasons farmers don’t plant calabash like they used to do in those days,” remarks Ogundipe Akinrin, a carver and farmer.
Despite modern incursions, the artistry of festooned calabashes remains unparalleled, and presents a standard of the ideal beauty of a primal craft rich in cultural history.
The full article here