The Art of Kenyan Soapstone June 22 2014, 0 Comments
Kenyan Soapstone is starting to become famous in the UK but there are still some uncertainties about what it is exactly; for example, you can’t use them to take a shower unless you want to decorate your bathroom! However this misunderstanding has a reason: as the talc in the soapstone is soft to the touch, it gives a smooth feeling similar to rubbing a piece of dry soap. So the name was derived as “soap” stone. Kenyan soapstone or "kisii" is found only in the Tabaka Hills of Western Kenya, it is a metamorphic rock of mostly mineral talc, a calcium carbonate quite soft with a variety of colours: white would be the softest, peach pink and black the hardest and rarest, although they are all very tactile.
The artistic soapstone has become one of the speciality of Kenya's market most appreciated by foreign visitors. Here a little bit about the journey of the stone from the rock to your dinner table!
First step: Mining
As most Kenyan soapstone is mined in the Kisii area, the stone is known as “Kisii stone”. A vibrant town of approximately 180,000 people located in the Nyanza region of the country. The town is 192 miles to the west of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. Kisii stone can range from 300 to 400 million years old. The mining activity is mostly carried out by men. When they mine the soapstone they essentially dig a big pit in the ground (maybe 50-75 feet in diameter) using picks and shovels. The earth isn't gouged by heavy machinery, it's all done by hand using hammers, picks and chisels. The raw quarry stones are excavated by hand and carried to workshops that are up to 8 miles away.
The local workers retain all of the fill, so when they have extracted the stone, they refill the pit. After 5-10 years the soapstone begins to re-form, and new soapstone is available.
How does the stone become a piece of Art?
The carving takes place in the Tabaka region where it is a major economic activity! Carving is a highly skilled job: the carvers are specialised in one or two types of items and the young generations learn by watching their elderlies.
The stones are hand carved with improvised tools from recycled metals. The first one is the machete to break the stones into a handy size and get a rough shape. Then, the soapstone are immersed into water to make it is easier to carve with hammer, chisel, knife...
After it has dried it gets its final form and needs to be washed with sand paper to get smoother and erase the chisel marks.
Decoration and Polishing
A stone can be left “natural” or decorated with natural pigments or by sketching and incision.
To be ready for the market, the soapstone has to be polished and waxed with the right kind of oil and the proper techniques so it can shine. The used wax common name would be cobra wax, which will underline the subtle details, its natural colours and its shape.
Usually, men are in charge of the carving and the mining process when women are doing the sanding, washing and polishing.
The owner of the soapstone mines are local people who actually live on it with their houses really close to the mining pits and who are paid per removed kilo of stones they sell. Their property is passed from generation to generation because it is very valuable and they put a lot of effort into preserving the soil and keeping it in good conditions.
As this area is still considerably poor it is not common to have stable electricity. The carving business brings an essential income to several families in the area and it is still a vey traditional work done without any mechanical devices.
The stones are excavated by hand, carried to the workshops by feet (even when they are 10 kilometers away sometimes), carved with machete or knives and polished with sand papers. This lack of modern materials turns the people taking part in this fabrication process into highly skilled artists!
See some of Lov'edu's beautiful red love hearts made from Kenyan Soapstone (and now you even know what it is! ;)) Click Here.