Zanzibar Door Frame

"All over sub-Saharan Africa, those expert in the fashioning of wood, have put that high skill level to the embellishment of doors. If we start over in west Africa, there are the Baule people of the Ivory Coast. More known for their figurative sculptures, which influenced artists such as Amedeo Modigliani, they produced doors bearing mask motifs and divination aids.

Going further east, we encounter the Edo of Benin City in Nigeria. As well as mastering brass casting and ivory carving, they produced doors featuring the royal symbolism of leopards and mudfish. Continuing east, crossing over from Nigeria to Cameroon, entering the Grasslands region, we meet the Bamum. Like the Edo, they carved zoomorphic as well as human figures on their doors. Stepping out of Cameroon and nation hopping to the coast, we come to the beautification by the Swahili. Zanzibar and Lamu, were two of the East African city states, trading across the Indian Ocean, renowned for their door sculpting. Remembering that Swahili comes from the Arabic word ''sahil,'' meaning coast, so like the food and the language, the door embellishment was influenced by the people the Bantu encountered on the Indian Ocean littoral, such as the Omani Arabs and the Gujerati Indians. Popular motifs included the lotus flower, the rosette and the palm and frankincense trees.

These doors were for the wealthier residents, teak often being imported for their use. The poorer citizen would use the wood of the mango tree. A great example of Swahili door sculpture is the House of Wonders, Zanzibar. The two lions above the door, resemble an image from a coat of arms and the door is framed by a geometric design of diamonds. When I think of words like ornamentation and ornate, I think of the adornments to be found, on the doors and chairs of Zanzibar and Lamu."

Text by Natty Mark Samuels