Culture and Traditions of Botswana | Arts and Crafts

Traditional basket weavingTraditional basket weaving
Most people think that Botswana's contemporary art scene is restricted to baskets and pottery. While it is true that these two craft forms dominate sales, there are also immensely talented painters and sculptors producing some dynamic artwork.

Ian Michler

Pottery

Traditionally, clay pots were used as an integral part of daily life, so making the step to crafting them as a commercial enterprise is a simple one. Clay pots are used for storing water and traditional beer, and also for cooking. Traditionally, the women within the community are responsible for collecting and moulding the clay, with the most sought-after clays being the kaolin-based ones that produce red and brown colours.Clay pot maker. Ian MichlerOnce the form of the pot has been created, decorative patterns are added using natural oxides. Today, pots are produced mainly in the south and east of the country, where the best clay soils occur. There are commercial pottery centres in Thamaga, Molepolole, Kanye and Gaborone.

Wooden Crafts

Wooden crafts are produced throughout Botswana, but the Hambukushu and Basubiya people are the most renowned as artists. Products such as kitchen utensils, chairs, drums, thumb pianos and knives are commonly sold along the roadside or in the craft co-operatives that are found in most villages and towns.

The Hambukushu in northern Botswana are well known for their more artistic carvings, particularly of animals, and for the simple yet distorted style of their human figurines. The craft centres and shops in Gaborone, Ghanzi, Gumare, Serowe, Maun, Francistown and Kasane sell a good variety of wooden arts and crafts.

Bushman Art

Traditional Bushman bead-work. Ian MichkerThe earliest artists were the Bushman people, masters of rock painting and supreme crafters, using either wood, leather or ostrich shell. Today, commercial products - based on the traditional forms of their bows and arrows used for hunting, their loin cloths, leather bags and beaded necklaces - can be bought in most co-operative outlets, found throughout Botswana.Modern day bushman artBushman artists have also more recently begun to achieve success with their very distinctive style of painting. Bright and full of human and animal images, the pieces mostly depict the deep connections their lifestyles have to nature.Photo: Ian MichlerIf you find yourself travelling the Trans-Kalahari Highway to Maun, be sure to stop off in the tiny village of D'Kar (about 30 kilometres outside Ghanzi), as the craft gallery here usually has some amazing works on offer.

The Botswana National Museum

This is the multi-disciplinary institution that acts as custodian of Botswana's cultural and natural heritage. The assets under their care include the National Art Gallery, the Octagon Gallery, the National Library, the Botswana National Museum and 78 national monuments spread across the country.The art galleries host exhibitions by some of Africa’s finest contemporary artists.The museum also has various mobile outreach programmes, which aim to 'take the museum to the public', and a weekly radio programme that 'tells of the oral traditions of the people of Botswana'.

The art galleries host exhibitions by some of Africa's finest contemporary artists, and the various museum galleries and archives have extensive natural and historical collections. The museum's main campus is situated in Gaborone, near the Main Mall and opposite the Catholic cathedral.

Baskets of Botswana

Woven baskets. Ian MichlerTraditionally, closed baskets with lids are used as storage containers for a variety of grains and seeds, as well as sorghum beer (boljalwa); tray-type and bowl baskets, which are carried by women on their heads, are for more general use.

Slow and intricate work: a large basket, like this one being woven by a Bayei woman, can take up to two weeks to complete.Botswana is synonymous with the subcontinent's most intricate and beautifully woven baskets, made mostly by the Bayei and Hambukushu women from the north-western regions of the Okavango Delta. These woven artifacts have, for hundreds of years, been an essential component of village life for these people.

All the baskets are made from the leaf fibre of the young real fan palm (Hyphaene petersiana) or mokolwane in Setswana, which gets stripped into strings before weaving. Nearly all baskets have a pattern of some type woven into the bodywork and, to obtain coloured fibre, the palm strings are pounded and then soaked in a boiling solution of natural dyes taken from the bark and roots of various plants.

Reds are extracted from the bird plum (Berchemia discolor), browns from the magic guarri (Euclea divinorum), purples from the indigo dye plant (Indigofera tinctoria and arrecta) and yellows from the red star apple (Diospyros lyciodes).The traditional designs on baskets consisted of a few patterns that portrayed the natural world and were produced using few colours. They went by such poetic names as'Flight of the Swallows', 'Urine Trail of the Bull', 'Tears of the Giraffe', 'Knees of the Tortoise' and 'Forehead of the Zebra'.

While these designs are still used in the rural areas, most baskets are now produced for the commercial market - in a number of new shapes, sizes, colours and modern patterns that have been introduced.Basketware, sold mostly through co-operatives, has become an important source of supplementary income for many rural families.

For the very best baskets, stop off in the villages of Nxamaseri, Sepopa, Etsha 13 and Etsha 6, and just ask at the nearest hut where to buy baskets.Traditional Dancers. Iamn MichlerTraditional dancing displays are put on in most of the safari camps.
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