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_Rock bottom_, the last of Zimbabwe's Shona Sculpture pioneers

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

The name Zimbabwe is derived from the Shona phrase dzimba dzemabwe, meaning “houses of stone”, an homage to the ancient kingdom of the ancestral vaShona people. Their capital was what is known today as the Great Zimbabwe Ruins.

In fact, present day Zimbabwe actually is a house of stone, rich in diverse minerals and precious and semi-precious stones. Zimbabwe is known for its stone carvings and masonry dating back to the Great Zimbabwe days, 1250-1450 AD. A Zimbabwean bird carved of stone is a national emblem appearing on the national flag and bank notes.

Zimbabwe is known for its stone carvings and masonry dating back to the Great Zimbabwe days, 1250-1450 AD.

Shona people had a relationship with the soil--“ivhu”--a relationship that would lead to war and rebellion when white colonial settlers tried to take the land. The abundant stone of Zimbabwe was linked closely to Shona spiritual and cultural practices. Historically, stone works were not exported nor created as objects of art.

In 1889, German explorer Willi Posselt was the first European to steal carved Zimbabwean stones, marking the external world’s first encounter with Zimbabwean stone works.1

McEwen was keen on the mores of African people which led him to become acquainted with the godfather of modern Shona Sculpture, Joram Mariga. Mariga and his early soapstone carvings prompted McEwen to encourage early stone carvers to work on pieces that reflected their culture. A school was established by the gallery and soon attracted more artists, many of whom had already been exposed to some form of art training in early mission schools.

These artists included Henry Mukarobgwa, Joseph Ndandarika, John Takawira, Thomas Mukarobgwa, Henry Munyaradzi, Fanizani Akuda, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Slyvester Mubayi, Bernard Matemera, Boira Mteki, Moses Masaya, Bernard Takawira and Lazaraus Takawira, who made up the first generation. The budding art movement was financed by a farmer, Tom Blomefield, in 1966. Artists set up Tengenenge Sculpture Community at Blomefield’s farm.

From Tengenenge to the world! After setting up this first collective, other communities sprouted in Zimbabwe from Chapungu Sculpture Park to Chitungwiza Art Centre. The first generation of sculptors worked to put Zimbabwean Shona Sculpture on the map nationally and internationally.

The first generation of sculptors worked to put Zimbabwean Shona Sculpture on the map nationally and internationally.

Slyvester Mubayi, a first generation artist who died in late 2022, inspired me to write this piece. An internationally acclaimed sculptor and “elder” of the Shona Sculptor community. A 2005 review by Michael Shepard in the Sunday Telegraph remarked, "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". To have these artists juxtaposed with Henry Moore demonstrates the excellence and importance of Shona Sculpture.

Second and third generation sculptors have managed to keep the art form alive, acting as custodians of the vaShona people, chiseling one sculpture at a time. Sadly, economic conditions in Zimbabwe and a lack of collectors in the country have resulted in many of the original sculptures being exported. Our heritage and customs go away with them.

The biggest Shona Sculpture collection in the world is at Zimbabwe Sculpture: a Tradition in Stone, a permanent exhibit of sculpture at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the state of Georgia, USA. Comparing that with the number of art pieces at Robert Mugabe International Airport in Harare, you will understand why we Zimbabweans need to set up more permanent collections in our own country. It’s a sad commentary that it’s in the southern United States, not Zimbabwe, where the largest Shona stone collection is to be seen.

There have been efforts to set up collections in Zimbabwe, and some notable pieces can be seen at the University of Zimbabwe Great Hall and Library, the National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe, and the Parliament of Zimbabwe. But there are no more than a few pieces on display.

With the whole first generation of Shona Sculptors nearly gone, their works of art will scatter. More private parties and the government need to buy the art pieces and set up permanent collections around Zimbabwe. This would preserve the Shona Sculpture history in Dzimbabwe, the House of Stone. We must save ourselves from a great loss, forfeiting the very last of the first of Zimbabwe’s Shona Sculpture culture.

1 More than five decades after Posselt’s theft, Zimbabwean stone carvings evolved to what we know today as Shona Sculpture. The first generation of Shona sculptors emerged in the nineteen fifties under the patronage of then Rhodes National Gallery (RNG) director Frank McEwen. Today the RNG is the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ).

See © Brown-Lowe, Robin (2003). The Lost City of Solomon and Sheba: An African Mystery.


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