Dispelling misconceptions on stone sculpture

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BY Nyasha Chabururuka

ZIMBABWE’S stone sculpture, particularly Shona stone sculpture has emerged as one of the most revered art forms in the world expressively charged and conceptually based, rich in imagery, symbolism, and association. At present, a degree of confusion prevails in regard to the name given to local sculpture. Until 1980, the term Shona stone sculpture was used both locally and internationally, but more recently, Zimbabwe stone sculpture has gained credence within the country while internationally it has faced its fair share of resistance. Both names have their shortcomings that; numerous artistes are not Shona or Zimbabwean and there is a considerable workload of art that falls in the bracket of curio work, airport and craft work. The entities that make this amazing art reality are the people who create the sculptures and who are closely involved in the creation of the carvings that have attracted national and international acclaim.

The history of the emergence of Shona stone sculpture remains clouded in the minds of many Zimbabweans. One would be excused to say Shona stone sculpture began at Tengenenge. But there is mounting evidence that stone sculpture was prevalent more than four centuries ago during the advent of the Great Zimbabwe monarchy. The soapstone birds of the Zimbabwe Bird are relics of art in traditional Shona society that bear testimony to the fact that sculpture had already started, but failed to be grasped by many. In traditional Shona culture, animals are believed to represent something more sinister and mystical than what they seem.
Animals in Shona stone sculpture are depicted differently depending on the sculptor’s norms, values and beliefs and this has tended to influence the form taken by the animal image when the maestro is done with the sculpture. The present art movement is said to have begun in 1957 when Joram Mariga, then an agricultural extension officer, started sculpting on green Inyanga (moon) soapstone. On the other hand, new findings show that sculpting had been part of Shona culture in more rudimentary means like pottery.
A number of artistes that explicated intrinsic sculptural prowess focusing mostly on the culture and tradition of the Shona people using their life experiences in sculpting their pieces have pasted their names on the international platform. According to the late sculpture connoisseur, Celia Winter-Irving, the most notable names that emerged from the genre included the late sculptors Joram Mariga, Henry Munyaradzi (popularly known as Henry of Tengenenge), Bernard Matemera, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Factor Ziira, Joseph Ndandarika, John Takawira, Richard Mteki, Boira Mteki and Paul Gwichiri. Most of these artistes, however, sprang from Tengenenge sculpture village, an artistes’ community created at Tom Blomefield’s farm in Guruve located on the slopes of the Great Dyke.
It is essential to note that the initial catalyst for the spreading of the sculpting tradition were the international sanctions placed on Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), which made it impossible for both Tom and his workers to live off the tobacco sales. Tom instructed his workers to use the old farm implements to sculpt any figures which were at that time a big hit in Europe. When Frank McEwen, the first director of Rhodes National Gallery saw what the artistes were sculpting, he was quick to realise and appreciate the intrinsic sculptural prowess of the ‘Shona’ people that sprouted from the Eastern Bantu group who had a perceptual understanding of the real world and a belief in spirits. Tengenenge, according to Winter-Irving, means ‘the beginning of the beginning’ and it gave the impetus to sculptors around the country to venture into this newly discovered art form.
It is noteworthy that the pioneers of the present art movement such as Henry Munyaradzi, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Thomas Mukorobwa, Fanizani Akuda among others, who have since become known as “First Generation Sculptors” were mainly influenced by Shona tradition in the issues they tackled. Shona cultural sculptures tackle themes such as ukama (relationships), mitupo (totems) and midzimu (ancestral spirits) among others. Animals on the other hand were portrayed differently with figures such as lions symbolising authority, baboons representing fertility and the chapungu (batleur) as a symbol of power.

Most of the Shona sculptures continue to be crafted with particular meaning. It goes without say, however, that these meanings are mainly influenced by the sculptor’s norms, beliefs and values as well as their lived experiences. The early and later sculptors, limited in formal education, developed a knowledge of traditional beliefs of their parent cultures, prior to their becoming sculptors.
As a result of such a background, Winter- Irving notes that these beliefs are a composite of myth, folklore, oral history, customs and beliefs on the ancestral spirits and deities to influence everyday events. Present literature on sculpture goes on to clarify that despite being catalysed Europeans in the likes of Frank McEwen and Tom Blomefield, the subject matter of these sculptures are largely the sculptor’s personal reading of the of the traditional ontologies and cosmologies of their parent cultures.
Another observation is that unlike other African tribal art, Shona stone sculpture is different from any other sculpture in the world as it plays no ritualistic or ceremonial function as opposed to stone sculpture in other African and Western countries such as the Yao.

Even though Shona stone sculpture is part of the larger realm of African art, it has carved its own name and identity, as an art dedicated to making cultural statements without necessarily taking part in the cultural activities themselves. This makes Shona stone sculpture unique as it is far from ‘art for art’s sake’ but at the same time elucidating that the artistes’ realisation of the spiritual dimensions of their traditional cultures determines its aesthetic significance.
First Generation Sculptors like Henry Munyaradzi, Thomas Mukorobwa and Bernard Matemera worked in sculptures that depicted the relationships between man and his environment. Most of the early sculptures speak of life in the bush where rocks and stones take the shape of animals, and animals the shape of rocks and stones. Their sculptures have been described as a rendition of the movement of nature, and give an historic dimension to sculptures which depict animals in an area where ‘people wore no clothes, smelt naturally and lived with animals’. The general Zimbabwean audience has since revealed that stone sculpture is not quite understood by the ordinary citizens, but is mostly understood by those professionally involved in art education such as journalists, those involved in community arts and visual arts.

Most of these understand animal figures in Shona sculpture from a spiritual point of view whereby animals are seen to represent totems (mitupo).
Notable sculptures include ‘Man changing into rhino’ by Bernard Matemera, which captures the metamorphosis of a man changing into a rhino after eating their totem. The recurrent themes with regards animal figures are usually linked to the relationship between the natural world and the spiritual realm. Shona stone sculpture, its origins, influences, subject matter and commercial dimension are of interest to those professionally involved in art education, art practice, community arts, arts administration, and media and society studies.

Those that do not understand the sculpture have noted that the main problem with Shona stone sculpture is that it implores one to know much about the historical background of the area being expressed such that for the less knowledgeable, the lack of knowledge is a barrier to communication.

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