The art of coconut shell carving is a traditional art form that involves the creation of intricate designs using coconuts as the primary material. It has its roots in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and some areas in South America.
In most Southeast Asian countries, coconut shell carving goes back to the 13th century. But in China’s Hainan Province, its origin goes even further back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Over time, coconut shell carving has evolved, with each area developing unique styles and techniques to create its culture-specific designs and patterns.
The process of making coconut shell carvings
Making coconut shell crafts involves sketching, cutting, sanding, and buffing the shell of the coconut. In the past, this process needed hand tools such as knives, chisels, and sandpaper, but today there are modern machines such as lathe machines to make the process faster.
Once the shell surface is smooth, the artisan needs a stable hand to carve intricate designs into the surface of the coconut shell. They then sand down the surface to make a smooth finish or, in some cases, paint the surface to add the oomph.
Keeping alive a traditional craft
Ke Qiufeng is among the few coconut carvers keeping this art alive in Hainan. He says the technique of coconut shell carving is slowly fading and feels that it’s his responsibility to teach it to younger generations.
Another coconut artisan, Vijaydatta, is among the most renowned artists in Goa, India. He is also trying his best to promote coconut shell carving, not only in Goa, but also globally.
More than three decades ago, Vijaydatta — previously a jewelry maker — got into this craft accidentally when his friend handed him a large, tender coconut. Being a skilled artisan, he remembers that he made a jar, which gained accolades from his friends; he’s never looked back.
Over the years, this ingenious artist has been inspired by artists in the coconut art sphere and traditional artifacts to hone his craft. Besides decorative pieces, he has made hundreds of utility coconut artifacts ranging from cutlery to furniture. They include utility art pieces such as cups, guitars, and traditional lamps, among other eco-friendly commodities.
Today, Vijadatta has over 600 designs of coconut art. He also records the record for making an 8-foot-tall traditional lamp primarily from coconut shells. Additionally, he has held exhibitions in schools in his state to promote the art and reach out to young art lovers he trains at his workshop.
Cultural significance of coconut art
In many cultures, especially coastal ones, coconuts hold symbolic value. Since they are ubiquitous and almost every part of the coconut is useful, they are often associated with fertility, prosperity, and spirituality.
Coconut shell carving has often been practiced as a traditional craft. It has been used to make ceremonial objects, religious artifacts, decorative pieces, and functional items such as bowls and containers. For instance, carved coconuts in Sri Lanka and the Pacific Islands were highly prized and sometimes used as currency.
The carved coconuts may depict figures from local folklore, animals, gods, goddesses, or other abstract designs with cultural or religious significance.
Modern applications of coconut art
In addition to its cultural meaning, coconut shell carving has carved its niche in the modern world. It is mainly practiced as a form of artistic expression and showcased in galleries, exhibitions, and cultural events. Coconut shells are also used in ornamental jewelry, accessories, and decorative items.
Besides its decorative applications, coconut shell carving creates functional daily items such as cups, bowls, and lamps. Artisans can create more sustainable and eco-friendly utility items from coconut shells with modern machines.
Using discarded coconut shells can be a great way to combat single-plastic use and reduce waste.
Collecting antique carved coconut shells
Antique carved coconut shells are highly sought after and appreciated for the skills of old artisans and their cultural or religious significance. For instance, coconut shell carving has been passed down in Sri Lanka through generations, each adding a unique style and technique for future ones.
If you are an art enthusiast, you may find a valuable coconut shell carving passed down through generations. But when collecting antique coconut shell carvings, ensure you check for authenticity and intricate patterns that show skill and precision. Also, always check for cracks or damage that may reduce the value.
Learning the ancient art of coconut carving
There are many online resources — from Pinterest to YouTube — where you can learn this art. Find a coconut, learn how to carve coconut shells, and put your creative mind to the task.