Sculpture as a cultural tool

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THE on-going debate which surprisingly questions the importance of prioritising national symbols at a time when the country is grappling with a crippling liquidity crunch and a looming drought-induced famine is without doubt a cause for concern.
Almost 36 years after attaining independence, some misguided elements appear to have swallowed hook, line and sinker the rhetoric spewed by Western-funded and controlled media alleging that Government should focus on bread and butter issues rather than seek to reclaim artefacts stolen by the British and their kith and kin which form part of the country’s cultural heritage.
What is surprising is the failure by most of these people to acknowledge that Zimbabwe has a rich indigenous knowledge base that predates the colonial era, dating back to the Munhumutapa Empire of the 14th Century, arguably one of the greatest civilisations in Africa.
This fact, the West reluctantly acknowledges.
To many, the history of Zimbabwe started in 1890, when the country was colonised by whites, who in their eyes ‘brought civilisation’ and, above all, light in the form of Christianity.
As soon as Christianity took root, it rubbished the indigenes’ cultural practices such as worshipping through ancestors, revering totems, hosting traditional ceremonies as these were labelled demonic.
However, it is interesting to note that while the white settlers purported to not respect Africans’ traditional belief systems, they in fact feared them because they knew the power they possessed, especially the belief system in the symbolic and spiritual significance of totems.
Traditionally, totems have been depicted through the use of animal figures, mostly in stone sculpture, and this can be traced to the days of the Munhumutapa Empire where the first relics of stone sculpture were the soapstone birds of the Hungwe, later termed the Zimbabwe Bird.
While today the Zimbabwe Bird is undoubtedly one of the country’s most enduring national symbols, not many Zimbabweans can identify with the symbolic and spiritual significance of the Zimbabwe Bird except possessing rudimentary knowledge that during the Munhumutapa Empire the Zimbabwe Bird was kept at Great Zimbabwe and was sacred.
In a story titled ‘The symbolic power of the Zimbabwe Bird’ published by The Patriot on May 23 – 29 2014, art critic Dr Tony Monda shed light on the symbolic power that our Zimbabwe Bird, which is illustrated as the Eagle sejant, expresses through the description and direction that the symbolic bird faces – backwards.
“Heraldry is capable of demonstrating the combination of symbolic inheritances of the country as well as its ancestral proto genealogy in a stylised and internationally decipherable style and design.
“As a system of decoration, a reservoir of information, a symbol of identification, it appeals to the best and deepest senses of human nature and is an art form, not of the past, but of the present and of the future.”
The article by Dr Monda clearly hightlights that the Zimbabwe Bird has managed to preserve the principles, culture and tribal organisation of societies and embodies geological and heraldic information pertinent to the nation, often with the accuracy of detail and craftsmanship envied by many other nations.
So significant was the power of the Zimbabwe Bird that white settlers recognised the umbilical relationship between the Zimbabwe Bird and the Africans, it was used on the national currency.
History is also replete with recent examples of the depiction of animal figures in local sculpture, which worldwide has come to be known as Shona stone sculpture, while locally the name Zimbabwe stone sculpture has gained credence.
Sculpture has always been used by the Shona as a pervasive communication tool to herald their culture to the rest of the world.
The 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.
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.
Even the current sculpture movement that started in 1957, led by Joram Mariga at Tom Bloomfield’s Tengenenge, confirm that animal figures dominated sculpture as they were portrayed as totems.
The first generation sculptors includes the famous Joram Mariga, Henry Munyaradzi (affectionately known as Henry of Tengenenge), Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Joseph Ndandarika, John Takawira, Richard Mteki, Paul Gwichiri and Bernard Matemera.
Due to the fact that most of the first generation sculptors had an intimate relationship with their rural upbringing, the concept of the family nucleus and the significance of relationships is an often revisited site in the genre. That the Shona kinship system is basically patrilineal and divided into clans that may share the same totem (mutupo) is a factor that heavily influences this genre.
“So kinship is recognised between any sub-clan and they are to some extent regarded as a group even though they never come together in group activity” (Bourdillon, 1976; 24).
Totems were ideally put in place in Shona culture (and other African cultures) to embalm different families. There are usually animal figures linked to every mutupo and you are not allowed to eat meat of your totem or marry someone who shares the same totem with you as these people are considered to be the same ‘extended’ family.
The totems are usually animals are believed to house spirits of the ancestors.
Examples include sculptures such as ‘Spirit Lion’ by Mike Munyaradzi, ‘Dancing to the tune of my totem’ by Nicholas Kadzungura, ‘Super Monkey’ which has the alternative title of ‘My Totem’ and ‘Praying Mantis’ by Fungayi Mwarowa which were dedicated to explicate the importance of family in Shona culture.
“Shona stone sculpture often depicts creatures from the real world whom the Shona believe are invested in spiritual powers” (Winter-Irving, 1991).
Bernard Matemera also boasts pieces capturing the metamorphosis of man into animal after eating his totem.
Research has shown that there is a serious deficiency of local writers pursuing Shona stone sculpture such that discourse in the genre has been hijacked by white researchers who have almost gone to the extent of claiming our sculptors to be their own, just because they have hosted them in Western citadels where some of Zimbabwe’s priceless sculptures are housed.
The call to reclaim our heritage and culture through sculpturing could not have been more significant than now.

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