Sculpture of Zimbabwe

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Stone sculpture is an art for which the African nation of Zimbabwe is well known around the world.


Modern African stone sculpture is not "traditional", although much of its subject matter has traditional roots. During the pre-colonial era, local inhabitants were already artistically pre-disposed, fashioning various natural materials in the form of fibres, wood, clay and stone for functional, aesthetic and ritual purposes.[1] Numerous Stone artifacts such as the Zimbabwe bird[2] from the Great Zimbabwe state of the late Iron Age bear testament to this. Prior to the opening of 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."[3] 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.[4] These include the likes of John Takawira, and Kingsley Sambo. This 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, he 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 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 that has lasted through to the present day.

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 famed Mukomberanwa family (Nicholas Mukomberanwa and his protegees Anderson Mukomberanwa, Lawrence Mukomberanwa, Taguma Mukomberanwa, Netsai Mukomberanwa, Ennica Mukomberanwa, and Nesbert Mukomberanwa) whose works have been featured worldwide. Works by several of these first generation artists are included in the McEwen bequest to the British Museum.[5]

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 vigour, 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.[6][7][8][9]

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 period pre-independence witnessed the honing of technical skills, the deepening of expressive power, use of harder and different stones and the creation of many outstanding works. The "Shona sculpture movement" was well underway and had many patrons and advocates.


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[10] 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[11] and Chapungu[12] 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, who provided the land.
  2. Commercial sponsors in Zimbabwe, including 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 include Richard Attenborough, Richard E. Grant and Joshua Nkomo.
  5. 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 around.

Roy Guthrie quoted from a 1991 article in The Sunday Telegraph in his introduction to an exhibition in South Africa[13] 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 commercialisation 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, humour, 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 coloured serpentine and soapstones, firm grey limestone and semi-precious Verdite and Lepidolite.[14][15][16][17]

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 north-eastern and Mutare in the east. These readily available and cheap 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.[18]

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 centre 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.[19] Wood carving has a long history in Zimbabwe and some of its leading exponents are Zephania Tshuma and Morris Tendai.[7]

International Exhibitions[edit]

References and Further Reading[edit]

  1. ^ Mawonero/Umbono - Insights on Art in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe: Kerber Verlag. 2015. p. 32. ISBN 978-3-86678-937-1. 
  2. ^ "Great Zimbabwe (11th - 15th century)". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
  3. ^ Mawonero/Umbono - Insights on Art in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe: Kerber Verlag. 2015. p. 34. ISBN 978-3-86678-937-1. 
  4. ^ Mawonero Umbono - Insights on Art in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe: Kerber Verlag. 2015. p. 38. ISBN 978-3-86678-937-1. 
  5. ^ "McEwen Collection". Retrieved 2012-01-25. 
  6. ^ Arnold M I. (1981) "Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture". Louis Bolze Publishing, Bulawayo. ISBN 0797407472
  7. ^ a b Mor F. (1987) "Shona Sculpture". Jongwe Printing and Publishing Co, Harare. ISBN 0797407812
  8. ^ Winter-Irving C. (1991). "Stone Sculpture in Zimbabwe", Roblaw Publishers, Harare, ISBN 0908309147 (Paperback) ISBN 0908309112 (Cloth bound)
  9. ^ Sultan, O. (1994) "Life in Stone: Zimbabwean Sculpture – Birth of a Contemporary Art Form". ISBN 9781779090232
  10. ^ Spring C. (2008) "Angaza Africa: African Art now", Laurence King Publishing, ISBN 9781856695480
  11. ^ Leyten, H. (1994) "Tengenenge", Kasteel Groenveld, Baarn, Netherlands. ISBN 9074281052
  12. ^ Guthrie R (2000) "Chapungu: Custom and Legend – A Culture in Stone". Exhibition Catalogue for Kew ASIN B001ANIIXW
  13. ^ Guthrie R. (1997) "Zimbabwe Stone Sculpture". Catalogue for exhibition at Kirstenbosch, Printed by Scanshop, Cape Town
  14. ^ Kasfir S L. (2000). "Contemporary African Art", Thames and Hudson, London. ISBN 0500203288
  15. ^ Willett F (2002). "African Art", Thames and Hudson, London ISBN 0500203644
  16. ^ Winter-Irving C. (2004) "Pieces of Time: An anthology of articles on Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture published in The Herald and Zimbabwe Mirror 1999–2000". Mambo Press, Zimbabwe, ISBN 0869227815
  17. ^ Kasfir S L. (2007). "African Art and the Colonial Encounter: Inventing a Global Commodity". Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253219221
  18. ^ Zilberg J. (2006) [1] National Gallery archive
  19. ^ See annual catalogues for Zimbabwe Heritage, produced by the National Gallery
  20. ^ "Zimbabwe Sculpture", Atlanta Airport Site

See also[edit]

Art of Zimbabwe