Truth about Tengenenge: Part Two.…the village Bloemfield wanted to keep in the Dark Ages


FRANK McEwen was a jealous guard of his vision, which brought him into inevitable conflict with Tom Bloemfield who had by now set up his large ramshackled and unrestricted sculpture community at Tengenenge.
Bloemfield too, encouraged individuality, saying he respected the vision of the artist without question, erudition, understanding or scholarship.
They worked as they pleased; rendering much of the work produced being under par according to McEwen.
Bloemfield’s approach was the antithesis of McEwen’s proscribed, controlling vision.
Inevitable tensions between Bloemfield and McEwen grew and endured until McEwen was subsequently deported from Rhodesia by the white minority government in 1973 for ‘daring to empower blacks’.
McEwen left Rhodesia because, in the eyes of the Rhodesian establishment, he was seen as coddling black artists who were producing ‘grotesque artworks’.
To fill the gap left by McEwen in the now lucrative sculpture business, a number of small commercial galleries opened in competition to the National Art Gallery.
The most prominent was Gallery Shona Sculpture in Park Street, Harare, in the mid-1970s, run by Roy Guthrie.
As the 1970s progressed, sanctions continued and the political pressure against Rhodesia increased.
The decade 1970-1980 witnessed a significant drop in the number of new stone artists as most were affected by disruptive draconian interventions by the Rhodesian government who passed emergency laws, some of which forbade the gathering of individuals, including stone sculptors.
Some were often victimised and harassed for transporting raw stone and carrying ‘dangerous weapons’, which were their tools in the form of chisels and hammers.
Legendary stone sculptor John Takawira was one such artist who was jailed for 18 months for carrying stones to sculpt from Nyanga to Highfield, Harare, where he lived and worked.
Amidst the tightening grip of racist policies and segregation during the days of civil war which were marked by urban industrial strikes and suburban unrest, artistic activity was perceived by the authorities as: ‘Possessing dangerous weapons with intent to carry out subversive activities’ under the Emergency Powers Act and the Law and Order Maintenance Act issued in July 1960.
The breakdown of security during that period made it increasingly difficult for artists working on farms and other isolated areas throughout the country to sell their works.
Nevertheless, despite the atmosphere of increased uncertainty, defiance and repression during the war period of 1970 to 1980, Shona sculpture’s vast commercial success continued.
My first visit to Tengenenge was in 1987.
Despite the fact that a sizable number of artists at Tengenenge had received international acclaim, I found Bloemfield living in squalour, in a mud hut, no better than the rest of the farm workers.
In 1993 I accompanied a group of international visitors to Tengenenge.
I was again appalled at the continued legacy of indigenous African exploitation that persisted at Tengenenge, where Bloemfield deprived the people of their basic human rights to sanitation and children’s education, despite the huge profits being made by Bloemfield and several good schools located in the area.
Most children sired by the artists continued to stay at Tengenenge to help their fathers sculpt, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and the production of naïve art from naïve artists.
In 1994 I again accompanied a group of visual arts adjudicators to select artworks from Tengenenge for the National Gallery Annual Zimbabwe Heritage Exhibition that year.
Prominent Kenyan academic, author and fellow artist Dr Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui of Kenyatta University and daughter of the famed Prof Ali Mazrui of Kenya, was among the group.
Dr Orchardson-Mazrui was so appalled and took umbrage at the unsanitary situation and living conditions.
She threatened to report to the United Nations to witness ‘the gross human rights abuse at Tengenenge’.
Bloemfield believed in the indiscriminate production of ‘intuitive’ art, regardless of quality, content or durability, for which reason he purposely kept the artist community in ‘natural (squalid) conditions’ in a small compound consisting of a number of round thatched mud huts.
The largest was called the ‘dining room hut’, a one-roomed tin-roofed building, next to a couple of broken down caravans and cars. There was no electricity.
Electricity was donated by the German government years later.
In his misguided belief of producing naive, intuitive artworks, Bloemfield kept the people at Tengenenge in the grips of the dark ages, in which even a decade-and-a-half later, when I visited Tengenenge again in 2006, nothing had changed.
While some Western art experts argued that the natural surroundings gave artists ‘the closeness to nature necessary for producing original art’, they, however, gave no thought to the exploitative, dirty, unsanitary conditions the artists worked under and their families lived in.
Bloemfield had not encouraged any of the artists, or their children to further their education or improve their lives in any way.
He simply amassed the vast fortune which he exported to Holland, leaving behind three generations of impoverished and disadvantaged Zimbabweans.
In a BBC documentary Talking Stones 1991 Bloemfield boasted: “After a good sale, I buy my workers beans, dried kapenta fish and some good home-made wine.”
Would it have gone amiss or cost too much had the artists been provided with proper living conditions, adequate tools and a basic education for their children?
Notwithstanding the appalling, squalid conditions, the poor living standards, unresolved art works and the lack of basic facilities at Tengenenge, the centre attracted large numbers of people, especially from Europe, who presumably wanted to experience the ‘exotic’ ‘dark Africa’.
Bloemfield’s encouragement and enthusiasm for regular Gule-Wankulu Nyau dance displays from members of his migrant art community was an added attraction for tourists, anthropologists and cultural scholars to his community.
In 2002 the National Arts Council, in recognition of Bloemfield’s ‘personal contribution’ to the development of the art of Zimbabwe awarded him a ‘Service Award’.
In 2003 he again received a ‘Service Award’ from the Guruve District Administrator at the opening of the Tengenenge Museum.
Over the years, Bloemfield exported vast exhibitions to Europe, especially to Holland, where he amassed a small fortune.
During the Land Reform Programme, Bloemfield looked for a suitable ‘front’ to run his business.
In 2007, he appointed Dominic Benhura as director at Tengenenge.
In turn, Benhura ceded the leadership of the community to a management team of five artists in 2011.
Bloemfield has since retired and is living comfortably in Holland, leaving sculptor Benhura at the helm of Tengenenge, after his son Stephen Bloemfield was deported for burning down the Zimbabwean flag in defiance of African majority rule!
What was Bloomfield’s real motive for encouraging the sculptors?
Was he a saviour or an opportunist?
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.
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