THE SHONA SCULPTURE

"... good art can (and perhaps must) be a local affair – the product of a particular place and culture."

Roy Guthrie, Sunday Telegraph, 1991

During my trip to Southern Africa, which I recounted in my first novel "Gaborone", I discovered by chance an art that was unknown to me. It was 1996 and Zimbabwe was just opening up to the outside world. In a market in Bulawayo, in search of an unusual souvenir, I meet local sculptors and their works with such characteristic forms. I am immediately struck by their beauty, the purity of their lines. A modern art with traditional roots that seduces at first glance. The cold stone becomes alive after passing through the hands and tools of these local artists. One of them still decorates my office today. Shona is the main language of Zimbabwe and will give the name to this artistic movement: Shona sculpture.

Origins:

Modern African sculpture is not "traditional", although much of its subject matter has traditional roots. During the precolonial era, local inhabitants were already artistically predisposed, fashioning works from various natural materials such as fibres, wood, clay, and stone for functional, aesthetic, and ritual purposes. Numerous stone artefacts such as the Zimbabwe bird from the Great Zimbabwe state of the late Iron Age bear testament to this. Prior to the opening in 1957 of the Rhodes National Gallery in Salisbury, its first Director, Frank McEwen, met with Thomas Mukarobgwa, a young native steeped in rural knowledge and spirituality, and offered him an opportunity to pursue a career in art. Mukarobgwa became "the perfect mentor to guide the director of the new gallery into the ways and mores of the African people." It was an introduction to local artist Joram Mariga and his early soft stone carvings that prompted McEwen to encourage early soapstone carvers to create works that reflected their culture. The Workshop School established by the gallery soon attracted more artists, many of whom had already been exposed to some form of art training from early mission schools and were established art practitioners. These included Joseph Ndandarika, John Takawira and Kingsley Sambo. The budding art movement was relatively slow to develop but was given massive impetus in 1966 by Tom Blomefield, a white South-African-born farmer of tobacco whose farm at Tengenenge near Guruve had extensive deposits of serpentine stone suitable for carving. A sculptor in stone himself, Blomefield wanted to diversify the use of his land and welcomed new sculptors onto it to form a community of working artists. This was in part because at that time there were international sanctions against Rhodesia’s white government, then led by Ian Smith, who had declared Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, and tobacco was no longer able to generate sufficient income. Appropriately, Tengenenge means "The Beginning of the Beginning" — in this case of a significant new enterprise.

First generation sculptors of the 20th century:

Further details of the establishment of the "first generation" of new Shona sculptors are given in the individual biographies of its leading members: Bernard Matemera, Sylvester Mubayi, Henry Mukarobgwa, Thomas Mukarobgwa, Henry Munyaradzi, Joram Mariga, Joseph Ndandarika, Bernard Takawira and his brother John. This group also includes the Mukomberanwa family (Nicholas Mukomberanwa and his protegees Anderson Mukomberanwa, Lawrence Mukomberanwa, Taguma Mukomberanwa, Netsai Mukomberanwa, Ennica Mukomberanwa, and Nesbert Mukomberanwa). All these artists have created works that have been exhibited worldwide and several of are now included in the McEwen bequest to the British Museum.

During its early years of growth, the nascent "Shona sculpture movement" was described as an art renaissance, an art phenomenon and a miracle. Critics and collectors could not understand how an art genre had developed with such vigor, spontaneity, and originality in an area of Africa which had none of the great sculptural heritage of West Africa and had previously been described in terms of the visual arts as artistically barren.

Joram Mariga,"father of stone sculpture" in Zimbabwe

Fifteen years of sanctions against Rhodesia limited the international exposure of the sculpture. Nevertheless, owing mainly to the efforts of Frank McEwen, the work was shown in several international exhibitions, some of which are listed below. This pre-independence period witnessed the honing of technical skills, the deepening of expressive power, use of harder and different types of stones, and the creation of many outstanding works. The "Shona sculpture movement" was well underway and had many patrons and advocates.

Post-Independence:

Since independence in 1980, the sculpture has continued to be exhibited in the art capitals of the world and great acclaim has accrued to contemporary artists such as Dominic Benhura and Tapfuma Gutsa and the art form itself.

Support and encouragement has come from many sources.

  1. Sponsors of a variety of sculpture communities, of which those at Tengenenge and Chapungu have been most influential. Further Communities have developed post-independence, for example the Chitungwiza Arts Centre, which was an initiative involving the United Nations Development Programme and the Zimbabwe Ministry of Education and Culture, which provided the land.

  2. Commercial sponsors in Zimbabwe, including AVAC Arts, the Baringa Corporation, the Nedlaw Investment and Trust Corporation, Zimre Holdings Limited, BAT (who part-fund the Workshop School of the National Gallery) and Mobil (who support the "Zimbabwe Heritage" annual exhibition at the Gallery).

  3. The Zimbabwean Government, especially through its support for the National Gallery, which now has regional centres in Bulawayo and Mutare.

  4. Patrons who buy works or write forewords to catalogues for international exhibitions. Examples of well-known individuals in this category include Richard Attenborough, Richard E. Grant, and Joshua Nkomo.

  5. Fairly new contributors to the sector include establishment by AVAC Arts of a web portal to promote international online art trade through their website. This project was one of the first to use e-commerce and promote adaptation of new technologies towards community development in Zimbabwe.

  6. A group of specialist dealers who display the works in their galleries worldwide and communicate their own enthusiasm for this art form to visitors, who by viewing, purchasing, and enjoying the objects spread that enthusiasm.

Roy Guthrie quoted a 1991 article in The Sunday Telegraph in his introduction to an exhibition in South Africa to remind art lovers that

"There is a widespread assumption today that art must necessarily be international.... But against this trend one finds isolated pockets of resistance, which suggest that good art can (and perhaps must) be a local affair – the product of a particular place and culture. And one of the most remarkable in the contemporary world is the school of sculptors that has flourished among the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe in the last 30 years... placed beside the dismal stuff so beloved of the international art bureaucracy – as they were in the 1990 Biennale – these African carvings shine out in a desolate world."

In spite of increasing worldwide demand for the sculptures, as yet little of what McEwen feared might just be an "airport art" style of commercialization has occurred. The most dedicated of artists display a high degree of integrity, never copying and still working entirely by hand, with spontaneity and a confidence in their skills, unrestricted by externally imposed ideas of what their "art" should be. Now, over fifty years on from the first tentative steps towards a new sculptural tradition, many Zimbabwean artists make their living from full-time sculpting and the very best can stand comparison with contemporary sculptors anywhere else. The sculpture they produce speaks of fundamental human experiences - experiences such as grief, elation, humor, anxiety, and spiritual search - and has always managed to communicate these in a profoundly simple and direct way that is both rare and extremely refreshing. The artist 'works' together with his stone, and it is believed that 'nothing which exists naturally is inanimate' - it has a spirit and life of its own. One is always aware of the stone's contribution in the finished sculpture and it is indeed fortunate that in Zimbabwe a magnificent range of stones are available from which to choose: hard black springstone, richly colored serpentine and soapstones, firm grey limestone and semi-precious Verdite and Lepidolite.

Jonathan Zilberg has pointed out that there is a parallel market within Zimbabwe for what he calls flow sculptures – whose subject matter is the family (ukama in Shona) – and which are produced throughout the country, from suburban Harare to Guruve in the northeast and Mutare in the east. These readily available and inexpensive forms of sculpture are, he believes, of more interest to local black Zimbabweans than the semi-abstract figurative sculptures of the type mainly seen in museums and exported to overseas destinations. The flow sculptures are still capable of demonstrating innovation in art and most are individually carved, in styles that are characteristic of the individual artists.

Another artist, Bryn Taurai Mteki, created a large sculpture titled “Chippi”, which was unveiled during the sixth All-Africa Games, hosted in Zimbabwe in September 1995. This sculpture also served as the games mascot. It is 2.5 meters high and is now displayed at the National Sports Stadium in Harare alongside the Games' Flame, as a part of the permanent collection. In 1996 Mteki, now living in Europe, was honoured with silver medals from Oelsnitz, Auerbach and Adorf in Germany.

Some sculptors in Zimbabwe work in media other than stone. For example, at Zimbabwe Heritage 1988, Paul Machowani won an Award of Distinction for his metal piece "Ngozi" and in 1992 Joseph Chanota’s metal piece "Thinking of the Drought" won the same award. Bulawayo has been a center for metal sculpture, with artists such as David Ndlovu and Adam Madebele. Arthur Azevedo, who works in Harare and creates welded metal sculptures, won the President’s Award of Honour at the First Mobil Zimbabwe Heritage Biennale in 1998. Wood carving has a long history in Zimbabwe and some of its leading exponents are Zephania Tshuma and Morris Tendai.

International exhibitions:

Prospects:

In 2017 computerised sculpting was introduced by the visual artist Boarding Dzinotizei. His digital Shona sculptures comment on the Zimbabwean society through 3D printing. The message conveyed represents a loss in the significance of totems in Shona culture. This is being portrayed, in this case, through simplified forms and missing body parts.

The current poor economic conditions in Zimbabwe and recent hyper-inflation means that it is increasingly difficult for its artists to prosper and make a living from full-time sculpting.

Gaborone