Stone sculpture and portrayal of women

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By Nyasha Chabururuka

ONE of the most recurrent themes since the inception of Shona stone sculpture half a century ago has been the portrayal of women in the revered art form. No doubt, Shona stone sculpture has been used as a communication tool addressing gender concerns through its portrayal of human images. Feminists argue that women are defined as minors throughout their lives, answerable first to their fathers and brothers when they are young and to their husbands and brothers-in-law when they are married. In his unpublished thesis, Joseph Mandizvidza acknowledged that this was a result of years of misinformation that the woman is the inferior ‘other’ who has to be given direction upon every turn by a man. The mainstream media, particularly television, radio and print media, have often portrayed women as mothers and care-givers on one extreme end while the other depicts them as a witches and homewreckers. However, sculpture connoisseur Celia Winter-Irving says Shona stone sculpture stepped in to check the balance by presenting women as equal to their male counterparts, catapulting the local art work to the apex of international art rankings among the very best in the world of art. First Generation sculptors have often been accused of perpetuating the stereotype of women as sex objects, a trend that has been watered down by younger sculptors who now present women as equals to their male counterparts. A number of prominent sculptors have hogged the limelight with claims that their sculptures are gender sensitive as they endeavour to shoot down the negative portrayal of women in the mainstream media. Winter-Irving once noted: “Stone sculpture is a powerful medium that communicates and speaks louder than the words of poet, writer and singer … A way to study women and who they have actually become is through stone sculpture … Gender distinctions are no longer valid in terms of who is expected to do what and go where.” Although most artistes live and work in Zimbabwe, come from patriarchal families, are Shona, and indigenous to Zimbabwe, they had a developed knowledge of the traditional beliefs from their parent cultures. First Generation sculptors have often come under fire from critics who argue that they carved sculptures that promoted patriarchy as men were depicted as the ‘head of the family’ and were given other superior roles and positions. Such themes were given much prominence with most of the renowned sculptors like Joram Mariga carving pieces titled ‘Family Protector’ and ‘Head of the Family’, among others. They carved a face or strong image of a man standing behind small figures which resembled the children and their mother. Critics argue that this was (and still is) done by including symbols of authority and masculinity in most depictions of men. Of the younger artistes, Dominic Benhura has a piece titled ‘Pleading’, which shows a kneeling woman with hands raised towards the face of a man who is raising a stick, as if she is praying. McFadden (1992) argues that in today’s media, images of women are mainly used to sell market products. Benhura concurs with this argument, contending that sculptors use nude women bodies to sell their artistic talents. Most sculpted images of churned out by male sculptors are of women’s bodies, either nude or as objects of beauty. Women, on the other hand have argued that women’s bodies depicted in sculpture should not expose women’s bodies as that makes them feel ‘undressed’. Former National Gallery of Zimbabwe director Doris Kamupira (2006) pointed out that women complained during exhibitions about images associated with them. Said Kamupira: “Women often complain about the nude images, they bitterly state that sculptors provoke their minds as they even go on to expose the most sensitive reproductive parts of a woman, while some are accused of creating humour out of the woman body.” Many of the new generation sculptors portray women as nurturers, mothers, care-givers, men’s source of entertainment, weak, beggars and rightful bearers of all burdens that affect the family. Anderson Mukomberanwa’s piece ‘Pondering Woman’, which shows a naked woman with pronounced sexual parts has often been castigated for exposing women’s reproductive parts such as breasts and genitals. A piece like ‘Mama Africa’ by Walter Ndundu has been championed for depicting breasts as a sign of life, food and support to all people as mother’s milk is the primary food source for every new-born baby. Some argue that the breasts suggest fertility, meaning the fruitfulness of the continent and also the bounteousness of food in Africa. There are various themes that sprout from stone sculpture, and most sculptors concentrate on more or less the same themes, but deal differently with them. One recurrent theme in Shona stone sculpture is ‘mother and child’. Some portray the mother as the pillar of strength for the child, while others depict the mother suffering in her bid to raise her child. Sculptures from Benhura elucidate pride in the woman figure by showing mothers playing with their children such as the piece ‘Swing Me Mama’. There are other artists whose pieces trace the powerful traditional African roles of women as spirit mediums. These include pieces such as ‘Mbuya Nehanda’ by Agnes Nhanhongo sculpted in 1987, ‘Spiritual Woman’ by Lazarus Takawira, and ‘Mystical Mermaid’ carved by Letwin Mugavazi. Hence Shona stone sculpture is one medium that is actively empowering women, with a few exceptions where women are labelled as a ‘witch’ or ‘widow’ which give negative connotations about the woman’s image. The different interpretations in the symbol of the woman figure reveals that people do not view the images through one eye. Some women applaud sculptures depicting naked women figures saying they celebrate the beauty of an African woman, who has accentuated curves and a voluptuous bust and backside.

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