Popular Characters Re-invent Traditional Carving PDF Print E-mail

The popular cartoon characters from the long-running series The Simpsons are breathing new life into traditional African stone carvings.

A traditional craft in many cultures, carving adds value to local resources and provides an excellent source of income for local artisans and entrepreneurs. While wood or stone carvings are a popular tourist souvenir throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, most carvers stick to traditional subjects.

However, a group of villagers in western Kenya have transformed their economy by swapping carvings of elephants and Cleopatra for Homer, Marge and Sideshow Bob.

According to the book Carving out a Future by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), carving exports from the island of Bali in Indonesia total US $100 million per year. India’s industry is worth US $65 million. In Oaxaca, Mexico, carvings earn US $2,500 per household, increasing access to education and health. In Kenya, carving involves more than 60,000 people and provides household income for more than 300,000. In some communities in South Africa, households can earn between US $500 and US $2,000 per year from carvings – 80 per cent of a household income.

Research into carving has identified several factors that are critical to maximising profits: quality is critical, and the best woods and stone must be used. Diversity is an important element: too much of the same thing being made available damages the market. And sustainability: the wood and stone resources must not be used up.

It is this novelty and diversity that The Simpsons carvings address. By tapping into the global market for official licensed merchandise, the Tabaka carvers of the Abagusi tribe – well-known carvers in western Kenya – have significantly increased their income. And they are cashing in on the global popularity of the first Simpsons movie released this year.

Tabaka is a village three hours by bus from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. In Nairobi, the carvers would sell their soap stone carvings to middlemen, often for a pittance compared to what they would in turn charge tourists. Negotiations with these vendors could take days and waste the precious income of the carvers as they waited around for the deal to come through.

Craft Village UK has organised the carvers to produce Simpsons statuettes for the worldwide market. The carvers were able to win the official merchandise license from The Simpsons’ owners, Twentieth Century Fox, after its vice-president saw a video of the carvers. They were initially awarded the license to craft 12 of the show’s characters for the US and UK markets, but last month they gained the worldwide license.

Craft Village’s founder, UK-based Paul Young, had the idea three years ago when his sister returned from living in Uganda with soap stone carvings. Impressed by the quality of the workmanship, he thought they would sell better in a western market if they reproduced popular images from films and TV. In 2005, he made contact with the carvers through a crafts company in Nairobi. He sent initial plastic figurine models and photos to help the carvers get the statues right. He flew to Kenya in 2005 to meet the carvers for the first time and video the carving process.

Initial prototypes were too heavy and some would break. And it took 12 months of trial and error to get the quality high enough to approach Twentieth Century Fox.

“Familiarizing the carvers with The Simpsons was difficult,” said Young. “Making the carvers understand the importance of quality control and the need for benchmark standards and uniform carvings was – and still is – a challenge.”

“I don’t know who they are,” said Pauline Kemunto, who helps her husband with the carvings. “But I like them because I earn from them.”

In a community known for growing bananas, David Atang’a, master carver and former soldier, supports five children. “If this Simpsons project succeeds, I hope to educate my children in university,” he said.

Two groups of 15 members each are divided between Tabaka Master Carvers and Tabaka Classic Carvers. Women take over and wash, polish and shine the pieces. Each piece is numbered and signed (Craft Village UK products).

The carvers now make 450 Kenyan shillings per statue (UK £3) – between four and six times what they would have got for a traditional carving. Where work before was sporadic, it is now regular and employs 80 people. The extra income means the carvers can now send their children to secondary school.

Enosh Onsombi grew up with no electricity and no television. But since the community started carving the Simpsons characters, “Life has changed so much,” he told The Independent newspaper. “The Simpsons has changed everything.”

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