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Borana milk container: Gorfa
Image taken from Origomundi Art Gallery website
As an artist, I always felt the pressure to create “works of art”, unique, special. The discussion about what was art and what was craft was always present: Is what you’ve just created a masterpiece or an object that can be easily reproduced and only worth a few bucks?
Many believe that the difference between an art object and a craft is that the first one is original and doesn’t have a utilitarian purpose, while the other is reproduced over and over and sometimes has a clear goal on how it will be used. According to this belief, certain objects like pottery, woven baskets and clothes, dolls, etc., belong to the craft category. But, there is always a but, some of these pieces are nowadays regarded, traded, and valued as works of art; museums are full of them and many cost thousands of dollars, even millions.
My opinion is that any object created by hand IS an art piece, since it is in itself unique. The object has been worked on for hours, days, or months, it possesses the energy of the creator, his fingerprints, his sweat, his tears and laughs, his love.
That’s why I regard many of the objects created for daily use as “art with a purpose”, even if the purpose is only for play or aesthetic pleasure.
Ethiopia Traditions of CreativityThis time I would like to focus on the milk containers made by the Borana people, a group that belongs to the Oromo ethnicity. In the book Ethiopia – Traditions of Creativity that accompanied the exhibition of the same name, there is a chapter written by Dr. Marco Bassi devoted to the beautiful and complex vessels created by artist/crafter Elema Boru. The book lists 13 types of containers, used to carry water, milk or butter, and each of these types has precise standards on how to make it and what will be its specific use. Some containers only carry water, others are only used for milk, and there are also distinctions and restrictions on who makes them and who uses them, women or men, their sizes, shapes and materials. These precise restrictions would make you think that they belong to the craft category, where a design is carefully copied to fulfill an utilitarian purpose. However, these guidelines have a clear cultural and traditional meaning, and each artist contributes with his own creativity; modifying patterns, adding colors, trying different combinations thus making each container a unique piece of art. A container can take one to two years to make by hand and this points to a true work of art.
The materials used to make the containers are mostly fibers, wood and skin. Some of the containers can’t stand on their own, so a leather strap is added to be able to hang them from the walls of the house. Many of them are the contribution of the work of men and women; a man does the carving, and later a woman weaves the fibers that wraps the bottle. 
One of the most beautiful decorations that are usually added once the containers are finished are the cowrie shells (a type of snail) which are sometimes hard to get since they can be expensive in the market:

Cowrie Shells on a Gorfa
Image taken from Origomundi Art Gallery

The containers woven by women only, have both a utilitarian and a ritualistic purpose. They represent abundance and fertility and traditionally they cannot be sold, only traded or given as gifts. On the contrary, the ones made by men are sold in markets.

Carved Milk containers

As you can see the making of these pieces is completely woven in the cultural life of the Borana community, into the relations between men and women, their roles in the society. These containers, their shapes and materials have meanings that the Borana people can “read”, that represent their view of the world and the harmony of their society. The complexities of patterns and styles have been passed from generation to generation and improved or modified according to the needs of the community.
Certainly, a work of art.

Ethiopia Traditions of Creativity web site
Basketry Milk Container (Gorfa) Michigan State University Museum