By Dr Tony Monda
ZIMBABWEAN sculptor, Sekuru Sylvester Mubayi has been celebrated around the world for his morphing stone sculptures of spiritual women, birds, characters and personages from the rich traditional Shona culture legends, folklore, myths and ontology.
He was born in Chihota near Marondera, North-eastern Zimbabwe, in 1942 and is the sixth born in a family of nine.
His early childhood and family cultural experiences were to influence his artistic directions and philosophies of his adult life.
After leaving school, Mubayi first worked as a tobacco grader in Marondera.
Looking for better work he moved to Harare where he was employed by Chibuku Breweries.
In Harare he visited the National Gallery and saw the astounding stone sculpture for the first time.
On the advice of peers in 1965, Mubayi joined the Tengenenge Sculpture Community, where he encountered other famous sculptors, namely Bernard Matemera, Henry Munyaradzi Mudzengerere and Ephraim Chaurika.
In 1985 Mubayi broke away from the closed community and returned to Harare.
With no previous artistic experience, Frank McEwen enrolled him at the Workshop School of the National Gallery in 1969, and later was enlisted by McEwen to establish the influential Vukutu Sculpture Workshop in Nyanga, as one of its first members from 1969 to 1973.
Here, he produced some of his most striking and memorable work; creating some extremely powerful and uncompromising sculpture in the 1960s through to the late 1970s.
In 1969 during his first year at Vukutu, his sculpture entitled ‘Njuzu’ was entered for the ‘National Annual Exhibition’ at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.
That same year he was awarded the ‘Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Award’ for Sculpture in Durban, South Africa.
This recognition preceded selections of his work for the major ‘Shona Art Exhibitions’ arranged and promoted by Frank McEwen in London, Paris and New York.
With more accolades, his works were exhibited in the Federal Republic of Germany, Australia and other parts of the USA.
A fiercely independent artistic spirit, Mubayi forged his own ideas and style, sculpting mostly in hard stones such as springstone and lepidolite.
His work is inspired and noted for its spiritual power and fusion of human and animal iconography.
Working in a stylised naturalism, Mubayi’s conceptual exploration of spiritual and earthly worlds is a highly distinctive imagery which differentiates his work from his peers.
His subject is primarily the human form fused with animals which he articulates in smoothly rounded forms sculpted in rounded forms.
Mubayi’s sculpture is designed to elicit peaceful meditation in the viewer.
His contemplative, wistful sculptures narrate the socio-religious beliefs of the Shona peoples.
A prominent figure in the history of Zimbabwe art, Mubayi is one of the last surviving first generation pioneering Old Masters, who were the principal exponents of Frank McEwen’s founding Contemporary African Artists alongside Boira Mteki, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Joram Mariga, John Takawira, Joseph Ndandarika, Bernard Matemera and Henry Munyaradzi Mudzengerere.
Apart from his strict traditional upbringing, Sylvester Mubayi’s career has influenced many of the major events that transpired in the development of sculpture in Zimbabwe: His earlier years at Tengenenge; the establishing of Vukutu; the difficult years during the liberation struggle where his strength of character gave heart to other struggling artists.
Dedicated to the beliefs and traditions in which he was raised, Mubayi says:
“I know my culture.
“I know how to supplicate my spirits.
“Our people are following the English or European culture — they don’t know what they are doing.
“Myself I won’t leave my culture.”
In his sculptures there are several references to spiritual messengers in bird form — not unlike those found in some cave paintings scattered around Zimbabwe, especially in the Matobo Hills Area near Bulawayo, and Great Zimbabwe.
There is a Zimbabwean belief that birds could foretell the future and play a role in cultural divination, in particular the various eagle species found in Zimbabwe.
His composite figurative sculptures are depicted in postures that are clearly particular to Shona people.
Several of his earlier pieces such as ‘The Skeleton Man’, and ‘Witch and Her Mate’ are part of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe’s permanent collection, held in trust for the nation, and are on display in the sculpture garden.
The skeleton and witchcraft are themes that were often explored by Mubayi in his early work.
At his solo exhibition held at the Francis Kyle Gallery in London after Independence, his dominant works were acknowledged to great acclaim.
Michael Shepherd, a renowned British art critic reviewing his work in The Sunday Telegraph wrote as follows:
“Now that Henry Moore is dead, who is the greatest living stone sculptor?
“Were I to choose, I would choose from three Zimbabwean sculptors — Sylvester Mubayi, Nicholas Mukomberanwa and Joseph Ndandarika.”
In 1991 The Guardian (UK), voted Sylvester Mubayi as one of the ‘top 10 sculptors’ in the world.
Between 1995 and 2007, he exhibited his works at Springstone International Art Gallery in Avondale, in a series of highly acclaimed exhibitions.
According to one of the directors of Springstone Art Gallery, Michelina Andreucci:
“Sylvester’s sculptures are universally accessible; they tug at the very soul of our Zimbabwean spirituality, and illustrate a harmonious idealism between man and nature as advocated by our forefathers.
“In recent years his mature work has become more reflective of our collective indigenous culture.”
Mubayi aka Shumba Nyamuziwa (Lion), as one of the last surviving artists of the first generation Shona sculptors has come full circle; supremely sensitive, not only in his invention and articulation of Shona narrative, but in his consummate mastery of the language of stone art.
A profoundly influential and highly respected Shona sage in his community; both the younger and older artists look to him for guidance.
Chitungwiza has been Sylvester Mubayi‘s domicile for many years where he still works tirelessly on his sculptures, inspired by stories of spirits, indigenous flora and fauna, our traditional cultures and customs and the Shona supernatural.
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, musician, art critic, practicing artist and Corporate Image Consultant. He is also a specialist Art Consultant, Post-Colonial Scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher.