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The art of calabash decoration in Nigeria

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THE name, calabash is a derivative of the French word, ‘Calebasse’. It is defined as a tropical American tree (Cresenctia cujete) of the bignonia family or its large gourd-like fruits. Calabash and gourd are often used interchangeably. The calabash is simply the dried hollow shell of a gourd used for household utensils.

Calabash is a versatile fruit of a creeping/climbing plant which grows easily in almost every part of Nigeria. It produces fruits which are regular in shape. It is in many sizes which determines its uses. Calabashes are mostly round.The calabash is known by various different names depending on the area or people in Nigeria. For example, the Yoruba call it “Igba”, the Igbo call it “Ugba”, while the Hausa call it “Duma” or “Kwarya”.

Calabashes undergo some processing to produce household utensils like bowls, cups and water/wine containers among others, not only for domestic uses, but for religious and religious cultural purposes. When the calabashes are ripe for harvesting, those that are to be used as household utensils and/or other purposes are gathered and soaked in water for several days until the seeds are rotten.

*Designed calabashes

Then the calabashes are cut open, and the contents are scraped out clean. The shells are dried in the sun until they are hard. The dried calabashes are then ready for use. The natural colour of the outer skin of dried calabash is warm yellow, and it darkens with age and use. The calabashes may be stained in other colours: rose, by rubbing them with millet leaves; blue, with indigo among others. They can also be darkened by hanging them in a smoky room.

However, calabashes can

be decorated by several different techniques or methods according to the tradition of the area; though some people can use them as they are. They simply wash the calabash regularly. They are numerous varieties of designs and patterns which calabash carvers carry out for calabash decoration. These are achieved by applying the following main techniques or methods namely: Scraping; Carving; Scorching; Pyro-engraving and Pressure-engraving.

In the most areas of the country, the techniques or methods in use are combined. For example, calabash carvers in Oyo State or Kwara state combine Scraping Carving and Engraving  techniques. In Adamawa State, they combine the Pyro-engraving and the engraving techniques, while in Kwara and Sokoto, Scraping, Carving and scarification as well as Painting methods are used.

Calabash decoration

The basic tools for calabash decoration include: Knife of different sizes and shapes; iron needles; Saw; Perforated polished can; scrapper; nails; white chalk etc. The decoration techniques are:

Scraping Method: This technique involves the use of a sharp knife which sometimes has a serrated edge. This is used to scrape off the pattern motif to some depth, about 2-3 millimeters below the surface. The Fulani women carvers may rub chalk into the scraped area. As the background area is carefully scraped away, then the pattern stands out in the natural colour of the skin of the calabash against a white background.

Carving Method: This is another technique, whereby lines are incised with a sharp knife. The carvers make as many incisions as possible to decorate the calabash both inside and outside. This is also called “Cutting” or “Scarification”. They put their knives in the made or prepared fire. When the knives get red-hot, they use them to design on the calabashes.

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