African carved animals

Carved wooden African animals from the 1960s to 1970s
Carved wooden African animals from the 1960s to 1970s

Carved wooden African animals were popular decorative art in homes in Europe and America from the 1950s onwards. Although made by African wood carvers, they were not traditional African tribal art. They were made for a growing tourist trade and an export industry which began in the 1950s.

Many sources attribute the start of this trade to one man, Mustiya Munge. He was a Kenyan and a member of the Kamba tribe.

Munge was a skilled wood carver. He served in the First World War in the Carrier Corps in Tanganyika (today Tanzania). The War brought him into contact with Europeans. Their interest in his work helped him to understand European taste.

After the War, Munge returned to Kenya and took up wood carving full-time. Others followed his lead and a small trade began. The customers were Europeans living and working in Kenya.

It was after the Second World War that the trade in African carvings flourished. Tourism from Europe to Africa was limited to only a few wealthy travellers. Nevertheless, it helped spark a boom in the African carving industry.

Carvers from many African tribes produced figures to sell to tourists in a growing market. The first carvings had been figures, such as warriors. In the 1950s carved salad servers and African animals became popular.

Around this time an export trade to Europe and the USA started. The trade spread from Kenya to other regions, particularly Tanganyika. According to Walter Elkan, the business was worth between £150,000 and £250,000 in 1958. [1]

The wood carvers made salad servers, figures of Masai warriors, old men and small carved animals, including rhinos, lions, elephants, crocodiles and giraffes. In the 1950s importers in the USA placed orders for several thousand items at a time. [1]

The East African wood carving business was now global In 1958 Mwambetu Mustisva, a Kenyan, opened a business in London selling East African wood carvings. His compatriot, Samson Kibati, exported from Africa to the USA, to the UK and to Germany. [3]

The business continued to be profitable into the 1960s. In those days a good carver could earn up to $6 a day when average Kenyan incomes were less than $100 per year. [2]

In 1968 Stern Brothers offered a selection of African figures and animals in a large advert in the New York Times. The selection included rhinos, antelopes, hippos and water buffalo for around $2 each. The popular carved salad servers also continued.

The antelope

African carved antelope, 1960s
African-carved antelope, 1960s

The animals were a representation of the kind of animals Europeans and Americans associated with Africa. One of the most popular types was a representation of an antelope. Is it a gazelle, an impala or springbok? It is hard to be precise as to which breed was represented, but the style is very recognisable. The carved animals have an elegant shape and long, straight pointed horns. The dark hard wood material and style of these antelopes fitted in well with the fashionable Scandinavian modern interiors. It was a marriage of the exotic and the fashionable that made them irresistible to people who had never been to Africa.

Rhinos and giraffes

African carved rhino, 1960s
African-carved rhino, 1960s

Rhinos and giraffes are the next most common. The rhinos typically have a large pointed horn.

There is some decoration applied to give the giraffe its distinctive pattern.

Other animals

I have also seen:

How much are carved African animals worth?

Carved African animals were very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Many thousands were exported to Europe and to the USA. They are also very robust and lasted well. So they are common today.

They do not have any great value. Most will sell on eBay for £2 to £10.

This isn't good news if you have one to sell. If you want to buy one it's great news. Grab yourself a mid-century bargain! They are great decorative items.

As these are common items, look for perfect condition. Avoid any damage.

Look for:


[1] 'The East African Trade in Woodcarvings' by Walter Elkan, published in 'Africa: Journal of African Institute' October 1958, Volume 28, No. 4, pages 314-323

[2] 'Kenya's Wood-Carving: God's gift' published in The New York Times, January 25 1965.

[3] 'Pencillers and pounders', published in the Manchester Guardian, 30 September 1958 page 5

By Steven Braggs, May 2021

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

Mid Century ★ Facts & Figures ★ Collectibles

Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

★ Mid Century ★ Facts & Figures ★ Collectibles ★