History and Facts

HISTORY OF THE ZIMBABWE SHONA STONE SCULPTURES

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The Shona believe that everything on Earth has a spirit. Including the rock that is indigenous to their country. They believe that the spirit in the rock speaks to the artist, who in turn listens, and then works on it to set the spirit free.

”The majority of the artists in the country are Shona, a thoughtful, profound and sweet people that is inclined to mysticism and armed with an infinite patience. The older Shona live from the land and have retained their mystical beliefs, profound in a magical world of ancestral and tribal spirits. ………. Today, the Shona artists, in between two worlds, the new and the old, feels a need for expression, and to mark his presence, in a new domain, relies on his rich mystical heritage. His inspirations come from the mythical religion and the symbolism of the elders, through meditation, dreams and dreaming.” (Frank McEwen 1971)

The Shona are a mostly self-taught artists and it is also passed on from generation to generation. They rarely carve with a pre-conceived idea instead they let the stone dictate what should be carved on it. Themes are primarily based on mythical and spiritual, very intrinsic in Shona life and mythology. Each sculpture is an original and hand carved piece, they are no factories for works. The pieces are extremely valuable, when you purchase this art you are guaranteed of owning a piece that was hand produced and is one of a kind. The Shona began carving about 2000 years ago, but however this was only recognized about the mid 1950s by the then National Gallery of Zimbabwe Director (then known as the Rhodes National Gallery) Frank McEwen. Frank was then introduced into the ways and beliefs of the Shona by Thomas Mukarobgwa, they talked everyday and with an open mind he (Frank Mcwen) ensured that much was discussed that was rarely shared with Europeans.

The intentions of the gallery had been to exhibit art treasures from all over the ”developed” world and not those of African cultures, but its new Director very quickly realised the artistic potential of the indigenous people around him. After seeing early works Frank McEwen encouraged the techniques of sculpture, but it must be noted that they was sculpting going on already as artist were selling their art to tourists already. At this time Joram Mariga, one of the first generation artist who was later known as the Father of sculpting was already experimenting with the much hard form of serpentine. McEwen’s role as spiritual ‘leader’ and to an extent ‘protector’ of the movement continued to the end of his Directorship in 1973. He then enlisted the help of another first generation artist Sylvester Mubayi in establishing a rural community in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe the Nyanga district. It was then named Vukutu. Other centres of encouragement and creativity existed, including the artistic teaching at two mission schools: Serima and Cyrene. However, a quite separate and different community of sculptors, Tengenenge, was founded by Tom Blomefield, in the late sixties in the North East of Zimbabwe (Guruve).Tom Blomefield had been a tobacco farmer in Guruve who, through the pressure of international sanctions after Ian Smith’s Declaration of Unilateral Independence (UDI), was no longerable to provide reliable employment for his farm workers-many of whom had come to Zimbabwe from Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola. In an effort to continue his support for these men and their families he encouraged them to make the change from farm labouring to art.

The land on which the community was sited had an impressive natural deposit of hard carveable Serpentine and it was to be stone carving for which his men became respected and applauded over the following twenty years. Frank McEwen and the National Gallery supported this community for several years before the establishment of its own rural workshop at Vukutu. Tengenenge continued in its own path and still thrives today under the Chairmanship of a very popular third generation artist Dominic Benhure, after the retirement of Tom Blomefield in 2010. There has been a tendency in the past to see the work of Zimbabwean sculptors as a single cultural group, often been referred to as Shona Sculpture. Whereas this term may have served some purpose of identification in the early days of the movement, it is now misleading and unrepresentational.

A number of the important sculptors do not in fact belong to the Shona tribe, but with increasing international interest in the work of individual artists and important one-person exhibitions, it is interesting to see these talented Zimbabwean sculptors occupying their rightful places amongst other top artists on the international scene. The work of some artist had almost immediate international appeal, in that the imagery used was more accessible to the new audiences. Henry Munyaradzi in particular seemed to reach out to European art lovers in a language that was both simple and sophisticated: his klee-like use of line and minimalistic form astonished many who expected a ”primitive” or ”exotic” type of work from any African country. This misconception about contemporary Africa is common and brought about by the ancient African images used so successfully by Western artists such as Picasso and Matisse.

The work of Nicholas Mukomberanwa and John Takawira presented these audiences with similar surprises in their powerful depictions of the gamut of human experience, as well as the natural world around them. The striking images from the world of Bernard Matemera and Joram Mariga perhaps take a little more time to relate easily to, but they persist and remain with the viewer until accepted and understood. A new generation of sculptors such as Tapfuma Gutsa and Agnes Nyanhongo, however, speak in a universal and contemporary language and provide much food for thought for young artists in the more accepted art centres overseas. The art of stone sculpting continues to evolve, depicting the richness of folklore and cultural heritage of the Shona people.