Soapstone carving from Kenya
Soapstone is found in Kisii, in the South West region of Kenya, not too far from Lake Victoria. It is mined in quarries in this region, and is a very soft stone, which makes it ideal for carving. It is very tactile, and feels soft and cold to the touch, rather as soap does, hence it being called soapstone.
The mining is all done by hand, and so can be quite a dangerous procedure, especially during the rainy season. Large blocks of soapstone are mined, and then carried back to the villages and workshops where they are carved. Here you can see one of the quarries, and the stunning countryside surrounding this, through which the blocks of soapstone are carried.
When the soapstone is carved, it is done, in the first instance, quite crudely, using hammers and chisels – as you can see below. The soapstone is then soaked in water until softer, and carved more intricately. It is then left to dry again, and becomes hard once more. Then it is sand papered to make it lovely and smooth, with no chisel marks to be seen. It is either then left in it’s natural colour, which can be from off-white through to peachy shades, or it is coloured in an array of vibrant shades. Once dyed, it is immediately etched in various designs – each one at the discretion and skill of the individual carver. No patterns are used, it is all done free hand.
Usually it is the men who not only do the mining, but also the carving and dying. The women tend to do the washing, sand papering and packaging, as shown here.
Although the majority of soapstone is carved in and around the area where it is mined, some of it is also sent to the coastal regions of Kenya – in blocks, and carved in situ there. This saves the finished product getting damaged in transit. Many Kenyans move to the coast to seek employment, and the Kisii are no exception. Tourism is big at the coast, and so you will find Kisii carvers working and selling in Mombasa and Malindi. Here is a carver at work, and as you can see, health and safety play no part in what he is doing!! You can also see the inside of his stall, and his bucket of dyes and colours.
We probably think that the way of working is rather chaotic, and indeed it is by our standards. However, there is always a wonderful sense of camaraderie, as the workers all sit around chatting and getting on with their various jobs. The floor tends to be littered with all sorts of things, amongst which, nestle the finished carvings! This is just a small look into the workshop, and the dust that covers everything. Finally, when dusted, polished and lightly waxed, out of this apparent mess, emerge the beautiful soapstone sculptures that we are proud to bring to you at Bazaar-Africa.
Finally, I would like you to meet Samuel, who oversees the production of Bazaar Africa’s soapstone. He does not always look so serious, but would not let me have a picture of him smiling!