The magic of Richard Mteki: A Zimbabwean icon

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By Dr Tony Monda

ONE of the most well known commissions of public sculpture in Zimbabwe is the iconic modernist version of the Zimbabwe Bird which proudly stands near the entrance of the National Sports Stadium in Harare; commissioned by the Zimbabwean Government in 1986.
Anyone who has been to or visited the stadium along Harare-Bulawayo Road will testify to the magnificence of this contemporary rendition of the national symbol of the Zimbabwe Bird carved in Springstone – its creator is none other than Richard Mteki, a modern Zimbabwean master sculptor.
A fiercely independent sculptor, Mteki rose to fame by sheer hard work and by building amiable relationships with the numerous patrons and collectors of his works.
He is a personal friend and mentor and one of the few master artists who took time to explain to me the historical and cultural significance of Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture.
It was he who gave me the first consignment of brown oak serpentine stone when I returned home from my studies abroad — to begin my own series of stone sculptures.
I had the opportunity to revel in the plethora of stone forms and textures that abound in his sculpture studio in Highfield in the early 1990s.
Many a Sunday afternoons I sat, spoke and watched as Mteki worked with rapid dexterity and consummate skill, sculpting a series of stone pieces in succession as if driven by concealed energy.
The stones were the colour of hot chocolate and his chisel cut through them, imprinting his stylistic streamlined imagery which was both spiritual and sensuous.
When I first met him we discussed the state of art in Zimbabwe and how the European market had become over-commercial and the traditional content of the art of the 1970s had become overshadowed in content and context by trivial issues sculpted by the young and ambitious new artists.
Mteki is the father of female photographer, Nancy Mteki, musician-sculptor Bryn Mteki, footballer Richard Mteki junior and artist Tony Mteki.
He is also the brother to legendary first generation sculptor Boira Mteki.
There is no doubt talent abounds in the Mteki family.
Mteki’s geometric pieces in fawn-coloured serpentine stone blend well with modern furniture and have become a hallmark for any astute collector looking for the modernist streak in Zimbabwean stone art.
The shape and character of the raw stone provides Mteki with the primary source of inspiration for his artwork.
Stylised elongated storks, doves, eagles, owls and human subjects are captured in elegant low-relief geometric pieces.
Thematically, his work examines the inter-relationship and harmony between animals, birds and man.
Mteki believes that: “Every man can contribute, no matter how little to the harmonious living between man and animals, God’s creatures.”
A distinguishing feature of Mteki’s artworks is his fascination with birds; their anatomy, quirks, gestures and their traditional significance in Shona cultural lore.
Mteki explores avian, animal and man’s aesthetic qualities and transmutes them in a modernist way in his sculpture.
This approach to his sculpture reveals his duel fascination with ecology and technology.
A dedicated conservationist, Mteki felt deeply concerned about the plight of the rhino species in Zimbabwe.
In 1994 he participated in the ‘Rhino Watch Exhibition’ in London where he donated the funds from the sale of his artworks to the Rhino Conservation Fund.
As an artist and philosopher, Mteki has the cultural gravitas and instinctive knowledge of our ecology and aesthetics that can only come with passion, experience and traditional knowledge insights.
He searched for a personal artistic style from the onset of his career.
Over the years, he began to embrace a sophisticated geometric simplicity, which became noticeable in the mid-l980s.
Mteki has produced works of various scales from cabinet to monumental scale. Filled with a gentle spiritual charisma, the messages in these sculptures are much larger than their scale.
The design of his sculptures took an added legibility through his simplified stylisation using both organic and geometric shapes and forms.
The result of this development has what has become his ‘signature’ style which has built a list of collectors and clientele which rivals that of many international gallerists around the world.
A born ‘mhizha’ (master artist), he is known for his design integrity, indigenous cultural content of his work and the sheer mastery and precision of his craft.
The strength and fluidity of his lines constantly bear witness to his skill.
Possessing a strong social conscience, Mteki is always eager to teach younger aspiring sculptors, the techniques of stone sculpting.
Richard Mteki Senior is one of the most affable Zimbabwean master sculptors in the country.
Despite his rise to fame four decades ago, he remains modest and sociable.
One will not be surprised to see that he has friends from all walks of life, ranging from the neighbourhood youngsters who frequent his studio to famous national and international guests.
Born in 1947, in Harare, Mteki trained at the Nyarutsetso Art Centre in Highfield, and the National Gallery’s Workshop School where his brother Boira Mteki was a prominent artist.
When the National Gallery’s first director, Frank McEwen resigned in 1973, Mteki left the National Gallery workshop school and has worked independently since then.
In 1997, aged 50, Mteki was invited to join the artists’ residency programme at Chapungu Sculpture Park as a tribute to the years of support and dedication he had given to the arts of Zimbabwe.
Richard Mteki’s work was also selected by the Zimbabwean Government to be presented to the late Indian leader, Gandhi during the opening of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit held in Harare in 1986.
In 1987, President Robert Mugabe (then Prime Minister) selected one of his pieces as the gift to be presented to President Babangida, the then Nigerian Head of State, on his official visit to that country.
At 67, Richard Mteki remains one of Zimbabwe’s most industrious and patriotic artists.
Passionate about the preservation of African culture and the conservation of our natural environment; unlike many artists, he is more interested in the production of his work than in fame and publicity.
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, practising artist and Corporate Image Consultant. He is also a specialist Art Consultant, Post-Colonial Scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher.
E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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