Origins of an Artform

Modern African stone sculpture is not considered ‘traditional’ in terms of either aesthetics or craftsmanship, although much of its subject matter is firmly rooted in the country's rich traditions.

Running almost north to south through the centre of Zimbabwe is the ‘Great Dyke’ - a large geological feature spanning almost 340 miles. This is a rich source of serpentine rocks of many types including a hard variety known locally as springstone.

An early pre-colonial culture of Shona people settled the high plateau around 900 AD and the city of ‘Great Zimbabwe’ around 1250-1450 AD. Archaeological studies of the stone-walled settlement uncovered signs of skilled stone work. The walls were made of a local granite and constructed without mortar. Several soapstone birds and a soapstone bowl were found during excavations, providing evidence that art forms in soapstone were part of that early culture. Stone carving as art had no direct lineage to the present day however, and it was only in the 1950s that its modern renaissance began.

In 1954, Englishman Frank McEwen, a museum administrator based in Paris became advisor to the new Rhodes National Gallery, to be built in the capital of Salisbury (which became Harare). He had been intermittently involved in the French art scene since studying at the Sorbonne in 1926, but by the early 50s felt that the Paris scene was becoming trivial, and began to show greater interest in African culture.

On an initial reconnaissance excursion to Rhodesia he found himself unimpressed with what he saw; there was little or no local artistic scene to speak of. He believed in the purpose of the Gallery project however, and became its founding Director from 1955, until difficulties forced his resignation in 1973.

The Gallery had been intended to exhibit art from the ‘developed’ world, not those of African cultures, although McEwen seems to have been determined from the outset to develop and popularise the art of the country’s indigenous people. He certainly believed that the project could only thrive if there was some sort of local art representation.

As the new Director he brought celebrated art from Europe to Rhodesia - masters such as Rembrandt and Picasso, and works lent from Europe’s major galleries. Importantly, he was quick to see the artistic potential of the indigenous African people around him, and drew attention to their own innovation, dynamism and creative expression. 

He established an unofficial workshop in the basement of the museum, adopting ideas and practices from an earlier art workshop he had established in Toulon, just before the outbreak of WWII. Through the new Workshop School he began to gently encourage local people to try their hand at all forms of art - particularly painting onto canvas - and the disciplines of European expression were introduced.

Precise roots of the sculpture movement are impossible to trace, but the earliest artists have recounted how McEwen encouraged their techniques in sculpture after seeing early work by a small number of occupational carvers, working with soft stones. To nurture their development he provided materials, a place to work, guidance and criticism. 

In response, the local community of artists seemed to re-awaken a latent talent for stone sculpture, and a ‘first generation’ of new Shona sculptors began. Within a few years, a group of local artists carving mostly in soapstone were honing their skills and producing intricate and accomplished pieces of sculpture.

The evolving work of men such as Joram Mariga, Thomas Mukarobgwa and John Takawira, who were experimenting with harder materials and exploring more individual, expressionistic themes ignited McEwen’s enthusiasm and imagination. He assumed the role of informal ‘director’, throwing his full support behind sculpture in favour of other art mediums.

His influence and outspoken advocacy in these early days have led many to regard McEwen as the ‘founder’ of the movement. Indeed, his role could well have been the enactment of his own determined vision; writing (somewhat controversially) in Paris in 1952, in response to the art scene there, he seemed to predict the future of art in Africa and define an abstract blueprint for his influential work there :

“If some new vital art exists or is about to exist, it will occur elsewhere, imagined and created collectively in a different walk of life with a different raison d’être. It will not depend upon the whims of art critics, but upon some original manifestation of the artistic mind, prompted by a new environment.”

A Movement Begins

During the early years, the young ‘Shona sculpture movement’ was described as a renaissance, a phenomenon and a miracle. Critics and collectors were amazed at how such an original art genre had developed so rapidly and spontaneously in an area of Africa previously thought to be somewhat barren in terms of visual arts.

After a promising beginning, the movement was relatively slow to develop further, particularly in rural areas. It was given a great boost in 1966, however, by Tom Blomefield, a white tobacco farmer and chrome miner originally from South Africa.

The pressure of international sanctions following the Declaration of Unilateral Independence meant Blomefield was unable to offer reliable employment for his plantation workers. With no artistic training and very little knowledge of the arts, Blomefield nevertheless felt passionately about the natural creative potential within the African people, and to continue his support for these men and their families he encouraged them to swap farm labouring for art.

His farm at Tengenenge near Guruve included extensive natural deposits of serpentine stone suitable for carving, and he and his fellow plantation workers began sculpting the stone as a creative means of survival and livelihood. He welcomed new sculptors to form a community of working artists on his land as a place where people could discover their talent, and it became a burgeoning centre of creativity.

Frank McEwen and the National Gallery supported Blomefield’s Tengenenge community for several years and following international praise from collectors and organisations, McEwen set about relocating his own Workshop School to a rural setting, in a similar mould.

To avoid pressures on the young movement to become a commercial enterprise, he enlisted the help of Tengenenge sculptor Sylvester Mubayi in establishing a rural community in the powerful environment of the Nyanga district - the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe.
It was named Vukutu.

“In Vukutu, an ancient sanctuary of great beauty and complete isolation, surrounded by sculpture-like rocks, our best artists came to live in an art community. They hunted for pure food according to their belief in life-force. Here they produced their finest work away from the encroaching tourist trade. It was the best move we ever made.”
Frank McEwen

The fifteen years of civil war and sanctions against Rhodesia after 1965 represented an extremely difficult period. Sculpture received very limited exposure to foreign audiences, but the work was shown in several important international exhibitions - thanks largely, once again, to the tremendous efforts of Frank McEwen. Many sculptors abandoned their art and returned to more conventional occupations, and as the name of the Bush War suggests, rural areas became increasingly dangerous, which drove out many artists working there. Some struggled in isolation, eventually re-emerging as confident talents in the mid-to-late eighties.

Despite the adverse circumstances this pre-independence period brought about much development of technical skills, the deepening of creative expression, the use of harder and different stones and the appearance of many outstanding works.

Global events during the pre-independence period :
1963 : New Art from Rhodesia, Royal Festival Hall, London
1968-9 : New African Art, MOMA, New York (Toured US)
1969 : Contemporary African Arts, Camden Arts Centre, London
1970 : Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
1971 : Sculpture des Shonas d’Afrique, Musée Rodin, Paris
1971 : Gallery 101, Johannesburg
1971 : Artists Gallery, Cape Town
1972 : Shona sculptures of Rhodesia, ICA Gallery, London
1972 : Galerie Helliggyst, Copenhagen
1972 : MOMA, New York
1979 : Kunst Aus Africa, Berlin / Bremen / Stockholm
1979 : Feingarten Gallery, Los Angeles

In 1980 Rhodesia’s indepenendence was formally recognised, and as it became the Republic of Zimbabwe, trade embargoes were lifted. By then the ‘Shona sculpture movement’ was well established and had many patrons and advocates who were keen to introduce it to rest of the world.

Influence of the Shona Movement

“There is a widespread assumption today that art must necessarily be international... But against this trend one finds isolated pockets of resistance, which suggest that good art can (and perhaps must) be a local affair - the product of a particular place and culture. And one of the most remarkable in the contemporary world is the school of sculptors that has flourished among the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe in the last 30 years... placed beside the dismal stuff so beloved of the international art bureaucracy… these African carvings shine out in a desolate world.”
Roy Guthrie,  The Sunday Telegraph, 1991

To the indigenous African people who practised creative crafts, theirs was less art for art’s sake than a serious ritual of magic, medicine and religion. Sadly, the inroads of ‘civilization’ had smothered traditional arts in the 20th century, and creative output within African communities changed dramatically; art for magical and ritual purposes dwindled, to be replaced by commercial art designed more to please tourists than to appease spirits and deities. 

To most outsiders, true African art was often misunderstood and dismissed as mumbo-jumbo of a primitive culture, not recognising the deeply interwoven connections with their own art cultures - artists such as Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, etc., admired and copied African art.

Frank McEwen noted :
“The great attribute of African traditional art is expressionism, and the Africans had it centuries ago. The entire modern movement in Western art owes a debt to primitive Africa... It is a fact that very few artists of contemporary style do not possess some well digested but evident influences of Africa.”

In McEwen’s Workshop School, the artists instinctively adopted African symbols and stylisations, in spite of all the western influences they were presented with. Features common to West African sculpture came into the pieces - enlarged heads, the seat of the spirit, sturdy sculptural legs, chevrons, snakes and spiral symbols.

Interestingly, it was noted that wood carving, a beloved craft to ancient Africa, never thrived. Wood was seen to be the medium of the commercial tourist-art manufacturers, and the artists seemed to scorn it. Soapstone became the preferred medium. Indeed, McEwen harboured a fear thereafter that Shona stone sculpture would also be industrialised for the tourist trade, and become no more than what he referred to as ‘airport art.’

The most courageous and dedicated carvers even rejected soapstone and worked in the toughest granite, as a way of proving and elevating themselves above the casual carvers. They even practiced the archaic technique of painstakingly grinding one stone against another over a long period of time, and producing as little as one piece a month, or less.

“The art of Tengenenge reflects the dance societies with its carved masks and belief in ancestral spirits and magic. It has a rich folklore, yet the sculptures have no ritual function. The stone, which is a sculptor’s dream, enables the artists to express their figurative and abstract ideas in any dimension.”
Tom Blomefield

Shona sculptures then, as they do now, typically spoke of fundamental human experiences - experiences such as grief, elation, humour, anxiety and spiritual search - and they have always managed to communicate these in a profoundly simple and direct way.

“The majority of the artists in this country are Shona, a thoughtful, profound and sweet people that is inclined to mysticism and armed with an infinite patience. The older Shona live from the land and have retained their mystical beliefs, profound in a magical world of ancestral and tribal spirits.”
“Today, the Shona artist, in between two worlds, the new and the old, feels a need for expression, and to mark his presence, in a new domain, relies on his rich mystical heritage. His inspirations come from the mythical religion and the symbolism of the elders, through meditation, dreams and dreaming.”
Frank McEwen
“Known simply as ‘Henry’, the most widely known Zimbabwean sculptor is like a magician, a sage who knows how to find the essential and is, therefore, able to translate the essence of any being or spirit into stone. With care and tenderness, he selects the stone which he feels contains the spirit of an animal, a man, the moon or even the wind. He then relentlessly works to free the spirit, immortalising it on the face of the stele with an hypnotic gaze.”
Olivier Sultan on reknown sculptor Henry Munyaradzi

One is always aware of the beautiful stone’s contribution in the finished sculpture and it is fortunate that Zimbabwe is home to such a magnificent range of stones to carve. The various stones present different challenges; techniques used to shape, smooth and polish them are adapted to suit the demands of each material and no two types of stone require the same approach.

The artist ‘works’ together with his stone, and it is believed that it has a spirit and life of its own, that ‘nothing which exists naturally is inanimate.’ It is often cited that the artists believe their sculpture already exists within the raw stone, and during the sculpting process they are simply working to uncover a piece which has always lived within the rock. By connecting with it on a spiritual level, they are somehow guided by the stone, working instinctively instead of towards a preconceived outcome.

Popularity & Legacy

With the worldwide rise in interest in Shona carving, Frank McEwen became a popular figure in artistic circles, and as an authority on the subject was often asked to participate in various projects. He always expressed concern though with the ever-broadening popularity, that the quality of Shona art might become compromised.

He is perhaps best remembered today for his efforts to bring attention to the work of Shona artists in Rhodesia, and for helping to found the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. He was awarded the OBE in 1963.

Tengenenge continues to thrive today. It is a typical African village except that the inhabitants all make their living from sculpting. As an open-air gallery more than 11,000 sculptures are exhibited, made by over 300 different sculptors. About a hundred sculptor families make up the Tengenenge community, and some consist of 3 generations of sculptors, dating back to the beginning. Tom Blomefield still lives and sculpts there.

In spite of increasing worldwide demand for the sculptures, no mass commercialisation has occurred as McEwen feared it might. Serious artists have the utmost integrity to their artform, producing original creations rather than copying and still working entirely by hand. Unrestricted by external ideas of what their ‘art’ should be, they continue to work with spontaneity, confidence and great skill.

Now, over fifty years after the first steps to their new sculptural tradition, many artists throughout Zimbabwe make their living as full-time sculptors and the best will comfortably bear comparison with contemporary sculptors anywhere.

Shona sculpture has continued to be exhibited in international art capitals. It has received great acclaim both as an art form itself, and through contemporary artists such as Dominic Benhura and Tapfuma Gutsa. Recognition and popularity of the medium have continued to grow exponentially since the arrival of the internet, and beautiful examples of Shona sculpture from Zimbabwe can be found in all corners of the globe.