Public monuments: A case for Zimbabwe

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DESPITE the fact that Western historians alleged that Africans had developed no language, our records of life for the indigenous are communicated through symbols, motifs, insignia, colour, body language, music, orature, folklore, hunhu/ubuntu and intergenerational knowledge passed on from grandfather and grandmother to the next generations.
This holistic multi-faceted approach communicated more than mere instructional language and encompassed an integral communication system that was laden with meaning, encoded laws of the land, mystical rites of rainmaking, gestures of healing, prehistoric pharmacology, hunting, industrial technology and a variety of more knowledge systems one can decipher from what is inscribed and captured on rock paintings, artefacts, architecture and landmarks.
The visual testament of the country’s past and perhaps one of the earliest forms of communication is the land itself; the purest untainted language of who we are.
For thousands of years, monuments have been created and erected as reminders of national identity, purpose, military successes and greatness.
Some still remain as durable and famous symbols of many lost ancient civilisations today.
Prehistoric cultures across the world created numerous forms of monumental tombs of the wealthy and powerful members of their society, that today are often the source of our information and art from those cultures.
Much like the Egyptian Pyramids, Greek Parthenon and the Roman Coliseum, Great Zimbabwe is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient national monuments evocative of a Nation’s civilisation.
Monuments endure beyond their time and force us to continue the experience of its legacies.
Monuments such as the ancient Egyptian Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal of India and Stonehenge in England have become symbols of their civilisations.
Similarly, Obelisks such as the Cleopatra’s Needle were usually erected to commemorate great leaders.
In Zimbabwe, the walls that remain of Great Zimbabwe today inform us of our history and of our progenitors.
They endow us with an understanding of our lives and the world around us and help us to re-discover ourselves.
The symbolic status and physical presence of a monument, such as war memorials and the Eternal Flame that is kept burning to honour Unknown Soldiers, should teach us not to repeat the mistakes made in the past, but remind us to strive for a better future for all mankind.
The word ‘monument’ is derived from the Latin moneo, monere, meaning ‘to remind’, ‘to advise’ or ‘to warn’.
This suggests a monument allows us to learn from the past and imagine the future.
A monument is a structure explicitly created to commemorate a person or important event, or which has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of historic times or cultural heritage, as a funerary monument made to commemorate the dead or even an example of historic architecture.
They can also be used to educate the general population regarding important events or figures from the past.
However, by tradition, man-made monuments embody the idea and ideals significant only to those who erect them.
The landscape of colonial monuments erected all over colonial Africa were intended to visually link Cecil John Rhodes’ colonies such as parts of pre-independent South Africa and Zimbabwe and retain memory of the British Empire and to assert visual, colonial and imperial power over the indigenous people.
Rhodes bequeathed numerous statues across most of Southern Africa as a standard yardstick upon which to be remembered in order to keep his legacy alive.
As societies became larger and more organised, so their monuments and public art monuments were also often designed to convey historical or political information and used to reinforce the primacy of existing political power.
In more recent times, monumental structures such as the Statue of Liberty on Stanton Island in New York and Eiffel Tower erected in Paris, France, have become iconic modern emblems of nations.
The fabrication of monuments as public art, such as memorials, historical monuments, installations, murals, sculptures and functional memorial elements are important features in defining and commemorating historical spaces, events and personages.
These must necessarily originate from honest and unbiased engagement with old and new indigenous Zimbabwean realities where the past continues to reside and re-constitute itself in the present.
While Western man created and erected monuments, in Zimbabwe we created natural shrines, usually determined by nature, that we recognise as geo-physical monuments today.
In Zimbabwe today, there are numerous geophysical natural monuments and archaeological remains that have become sites of our memory.
There are many sites of African resistance to Western colonial invasions.
For instance, Bingaguru Mountain, which was the natural stronghold of Paramount Chief Makoni, later invaded by colonial forces, is outstanding yet it is omitted from our museology and social history.
Mutoko Mountains, where Chief Mutoko defeated and drove out the Goanese filibuster enslaver, who tried to extend Portuguese influence through Northern Mashonaland, is also an example of an omitted historical and socio-political landmark.
In doing so, Chief Mutoko saved the country’s indigenous people from the worst ravages of the Slave Trade.
Indigenous Zimbabwean sites of memory that communicate our origins, struggles and aspirations become sites of power for us, the descendants.
It stands to reason then, that sites of African resistance to Western invasions, apart from the Matopos, which we all know, should be investigated, researched, documented and recognised for what they are.
All citizens are entitled to understand their heritage through the memory of the land.
Ideally, today’s public monuments should be site-specific and attuned to socio-economic and environmental perspectives while contributing to the revitalisation of urban design and civic infrastructure. They should enhance public areas, comment on environmental and social conditions and help to stimulate civic pride.
The development and adoption of a public art and monument master-plan for Zimbabwe provides an opportunity to establish a shared vision for a community’s public realm and to co-ordinate activities between multiple stakeholders – civic town planners, artists, arts and cultural organisations, chieftainships, spiritual elders and other related stakeholders – in shaping that realm.
Monuments and public art address the need to catalyse economic development activity, while celebrating the story of national entrepreneurship, empowerment and economic innovation.
Throughout the world, communities are developing and adopting public art master-plans to express long-term commitment to the essential importance of public art in the planning, design and creation of many public spaces.
Our natural monuments continue to speak to us regarding the past and the present, but have we taken time to listen to what our Zimbabwean geophysical sites of memory are communicating to us?
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher.
For views and comments, email: tonym.monda@gmail.com

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