We are compiling a glossary for all things on African Art. We welcome suggestions on the project.

Soapstone

Soapstone is a metamorphic rock consisting mostly of the mineral, talc. Sometimes known as steatite, it is comparatively soft to granite and frequently used for sculpting. Kenyan soapstone or “kisii” is found only in the Tabaka Hills of Western Kenya, a few miles southwest of Kisii town.

An easily worked stone, Kisii comes in a variety of colors ranging from cream and lavender to black. The artistic production of soapstone has become an economically vibrant industry, resulting in the creation of exquisite works of art, from beautiful miniature pink and blue elephants, and egg-shaped therapeutic stones, to bowls painted with abstract motifs or realistic scenes.

The stone is quarried from mines that are usually 50-75 feet in diameter using picks and shovels. Utilizing a green production process, the earth is not gouged by heavy machinery. Quarried stones are then hand-carried to workshops as far as six miles away.

The sculptors use a panga, a large knife, to break the stone to size before carving out the rough shape. Details are laboriously done with kisu, a small knife. The finished objects are then polished with sandpaper and cleaned with a small brush before being painted. When the objects are painted, the natural color and vein-like lines of minerals sometimes show through creating an interesting lacey layer to the work.

Glass Beads

These colorful and unique glass bead bracelets are handmade by recycling glass, such as the blue, green, brown, and clear glass bottles. The Ghanaian artisans creating these bracelets melt down used glass bottles, and then fire the new beads in mud brick ovens.  Although it is traditional for men to smash, fire, mold, and paint the beads, the women are in charge of creating the designs, producing the product and handle most of the sales and marketing.