In Zimbabwe, the Shona people were traditionally known as “the People of the Mist”, since they inhabited the mist-shrouded Inyanga Mountains, from whose stone their descendants have been creating extraordinary sculpture over the past 55 years or so.
The Shona are the oldest and also the largest ethnic group in the country, and the legendary guardians of King Solomon’s mines. Despite the fact that many of them are now urbanised, the essence of their misty land and its spiritual world is deep within their psyche and still relevant.
In fact the belief is that each rock on the Inyanga slopes contains a spirit unique to that stone. They are wonderfully varied in colour, with mauve lapidolite, leopard rock, semi-precious green verdite, and the black, hard serpentine and springstone.
As an exhibition review in a London newspaper put it recently: “Shona sculpture is an art movement which emerged in Zimbabwe in the 1960s and has now been hailed on the international art scene. It is sculpture of world quality, extracting the individual spirit of the stone.”
In 1988, Newsweek magazine went as far as saying: “Shona sculpture is perhaps the most important art form to emerge from Africa this century. Prince Charles has become a collector. Richard Attenborough (the film director) came to Zimbabwe and before leaving, shipped 29 crates of Shona pieces home.”
Potent traditions of spiritual connection and myth may well link contemporary Zimbabwean sculpture to steatite carvings, particularly of birds, created at Great Zimbabwe, the imposing city structure built of stone circa 1500 AD, and surrounded by massive walls. Both historic and modern sculptors have created images of the Bataleur eagle Chapungu, a sacred messenger, which became a powerful symbol at Zimbabwe’s independence. From long past, the Shona have been a gentle, deeply reflective people, mystically inclined and armed with enduring patience and resourcefulness. Even in warfare, they relied on traditional religious systems for power, defeating Portuguese invaders in 1600.
The key to Shona life is the family – women, men and their children, as well as their ancestors. In the past a member of the family was a muvesi or carver, empowered by a Mudzimu, a special ancestral spirit who manifested in dreams.
The muvesi created household items with great artistry in wood and clay, though not usually stone, as a way of recounting what he had seen in a dream. This heritage is embedded in the work of modern Shona sculptors, though theirs is clearly not for functional purposes.
The present art movement surged into public consciousness in the early 1960s with the encouragement of Frank McEwen, the first director of the National Gallery in Harare. He quickly realised the inherent sculptural brilliance of the Shona, enabling sculptors to form a workshop at the gallery, helping to sell their work there, and fairly soon to exhibit it abroad. By 1973, when McEwen had to leave Zimbabwe, 155 exhibitions had been held, and more than 1,000 people had taken part in the Workshop School. Many exhibitions at global venues have followed, as far afield as Japan.
Major artists who made their mark at the Gallery Workshop include Joram Mariga, John Takawira, Joseph Ndarika, Nicholas Mukomberanwa and Thomas Mukarobgwa. Sculptors other than Shona have also emerged, in the “first generation” including Fanizani Akuda, of the Chewa people. Later, Thomas Ndebele, his “family” name indicative of his ethnic group, became a workshop leader in an exemplary workshop/exhibition outlet operating today with great success in Brighton, UK, called AfricArt. McEwen had also opened a sculpture farm near Nyanga called Vukutu, with another dynamic wave of creativity emerging. According to McEwen: “At one time there were 17 quarries in operation, producing wonderfully different (mostly serpentine) qualities and colours of stone.”
The artists handled “huge blocks of stone by methods of leverage, eventually developing techniques to block out and carve in fine detail the hardest granite, chiselling in ways that seem to restate and intensify the energy, mythology and ageless power inherent in the stone.”
In 1966, a second European, Tom Blomefield, made available land on which he had been farming, which had a vast deposit of serpentine stone. This second workshop, called Tengenenge, meaning “the beginning of the beginning”, enabled a group of sculptural stars to shine, including Sylvester Mubayi, Lemon Moses, Bernard Matemera and Henry Munyaradzi.
Initially, Blomefield encouraged them by supplying them with tools, shelter and food. All the sculpture produced was transported 100 miles to Harare where it was successfully sold, enabling the artists to become independent. Now, a second generation of urban artists has gained recognition, based in Harare or establishing themselves in Europe. These include Gedion Nyanhongo, Joe Mutasa and many more.
Tapfuma Gutsa, living and working in Vienna, has apparently departed from much of his spiritual heritage. Atypically, he often combines materials, using metal, wood, horn, wire and paper, as well as stone, expressing contemporary as well as traditional concepts aimed at an international as well as local audience, and exhibiting all over the world. Yet echoes of the past sing out – he says: “Objects such as buffalo horns are used by medicine men to empower and strengthen the warrior before battle – in this sense the shaman creates an object that can acquire meaning and influence people, just as an AK47 rifle or a bible can wield influence and power. I am, therefore, interested in creating enigmatic forms that are intrinsically functional, in the sense that medicines or weapons are functional. It is a kind of alchemy.”
As their forbears did, contemporary Zimbabwean sculptors usually begin with inspiration from a dream or daydream/meditation, carving natural or mythical forms. The inner vision is transfused with calm, considered action into the stone until the “thought” or inspiration is apparent, in harmony with the spirit of the stone.
McEwen commented that in common with other classical African sculpture, in the Shona contemporary genre, “there is an emphasis on verticality, the enlarged head – seat of the spirit, evidence of the human in animal life, the facial expression of trance, and the posture from dance of ‘relaxed tension’.”
Animal symbolism is very apparent, often encompassing a metamorphosis from animal to human qualities, like the baboon, who as a spirit, can inhabit a human being, imparting skills, wisdom; just as in Ancient Egypt, a baboon emanation represented Thoth, the Lord of Wisdom.
The spiritual pantheon includes a sky and rain god Mwari, and many other spirits inhabiting nature. One of the most prominent sculptors, Sylvester Mubai, was the first to use skeletal imagery, which could be of an animal. At the time of blood sacrifices, a skeleton of an important being may be temporarily possessed of partial incarnation to communicate with the living.
Eyes, integrated in trees as well as figures, often indicate the presence of spirits. It stems from a belief found widely in African philosophy, that a human’s life, and even thoughts, are constantly observed by the eye of the ancestor, or from his conscience. In some Shona sculpture, the psychic eye is in mid-forehead, a Cyclopic eye indicating a pure spirit creature.
Members of the new generation recently exhibited in London at gallery@oxo titled Culture in Stone and subtitled, “Three contemporary artists celebrate the ancient art of Shona sculpture by combining Zimbabwean cultural heritage with 21st century life”.
Most Shona artists have no formal art training, but were taught by relatives or a master sculptor. Brothers Gedion and Collen were instructed by their father, Claud Nyanhongo. Gedion says: “I started making sculptures before I knew my name.” He has now achieved international success with studios in Zimbabwe and the USA.
His work explores social issues such as unemployment, as well as human love and the spiritual power it can provide. “I want to make people happy and to promote peace,” he adds.
His brother Collen agrees, remarking that it is important to remember that buyers end up displaying the sculptures in their homes. He adds that working with stone is difficult, but rewarding.
“I look at the stone and consider it before I sculpt. I work the stone to find out what it can be, what it is saying. It can take months to finish one sculpture.” Clearly the effort pays off, as he too has exhibited globally.
Also born into a family of artists, Hilary Manuhwa started out by assisting his father Damian with the laborious last process of sanding the sculpture. In recent years, contrasts of texture of rough and polished surfaces have added another dimension.
The process of sanding the smooth areas is lengthy and tedious, often carried out by apprentices and relatives like the young Hilary. His father advised that it was not an easy path because “artists are generally shunned in our society and not taken seriously”.
Manuhwa was also inspired by his teacher, Gedion Nyanhongo, and Gedion’s internationally acclaimed artist sister, Agnes, sadly one of the very few Zimbabwean women sculptors to emerge. He moved to Britain in 2001 and represents the new breed.
“My dream is to carve a new dimension by departing from our fathers’ and forefathers’ line,” Manuhwa says. “I am convinced it is the only way we can keep the art in progression. My father’s work is still steeped in our culture and beliefs as Shona people. It is very spiritual. With Nyanhongo, I learnt to work with themes of everyday life.”
In Britain, Manuhwa has experimented with different media, but even so always finds himself drawn back to African themes. “I only transfer African concepts to the stone,” he explains. Contemporary Zimbabwean sculpture certainly progresses, but simultaneously, it seems, remains embedded in its cultural roots.