Zimbabwe’s Stone Sculpture – a Journey
I chanced upon some examples of the stone sculpture of Zimbabwe during a visit to an exhibition held at Ingatestone Hall in Essex. Set against the typically English lush prettiness of the gardens of the Hall, they appeared imposing, elemental, strangely out of place.
I introduced myself to Vivienne Prince, owner of Zimsculpt, the exhibiting company, and over the following two weeks a plan was formulated for me to travel to Zimbabwe to take photographs for a book to be published by Zimsculpt.
I arrived in Harare and took up residence at Hay Hill, which housed the Zimsculpt gallery. My brief was to photograph the sculptures, their creators and the extraordinary journey of these pieces of stone to homes and galleries throughout the world.
Sylvester Mubayi greeted me with no show of enthusiasm.
�What are you going to pay me?�
�Nothing. My photographs will promote you and your work.�
�No photos of me have ever done me any good.�
It was an inauspicious start, but I humoured him with selfish intent. My aim was to get pictures of him and I was not going to give up easily. It was only when I was doing supplementary research for this article that I discovered that this somewhat grumpy man was one of the founding fathers of the modern Zimbabwean stone sculpture movement. He had been a member of Tom Bloomfield’s Tenenege Community; he had helped establish Frank McEwan’s Vukutu Sculpture Workshop and he is now an �Invited Artist� at Chapungu Sculpture Park. These three institutions were, and are, crucibles of the art.
Michael Shepard of The Sunday Telegraph, in his review of a one-man exhibition held by Sylvester Mubayi at the Frances Kyle Gallery in London said, “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”.
Sylvester is a giant, but you wouldn’t know it from his surroundings. He lives in a simple four-roomed house in a township on the outskirts of Harare, surrounded by the brood of AIDS-orphan relatives he looks after. His ancient, battered car is parked in the street; there is no driveway. His studio, adjoining the house, is chaotic.
He cracked open a beer.
�I met the Queen Mother. I was invited to her garden party at Buckingham Palace. I said to her, ‘I have enjoyed having tea at your place. Why don’t you come to Harare and have tea with me?’ She laughed and said it sounded like a good idea.�
He loves telling this story. He loves telling me that he has traveled; the implication is that it is all very well that I should visit him in his country, but he has been to mine, and many others beside.
He is proud of his work and his life; he is proud of his farm in the country, where he husbands cattle and chickens, and which he visits once a year, to make sure it is being looked after properly.
Joe Mutasa, college-educated, ex-PR man, expansive and charming, offered me refreshments. They arrived, two bottles of Coke, resplendent on a silver tray. Joe does things properly.
He showed me around his house, a comfortable middle-class home in one of Harare’ better suburbs. It is not grand, but it is all a reasonable man might aspire to – a well-tended garden, a new Mercedes Benz in the driveway, an orderly studio with four apprentices and a daughter who is a straight-A student. She wants to be a brain surgeon and this lofty ambition is made entirely possible by her father’s success.
The studio is a hive of purposeful endeavour. Joe is a traditionalist in that he dos not use power tools. He ponders the shape of a raw piece of stone, draws the outline of his concept on it in charcoal and leaves his apprentices to chip away with hammer and chisel until the work has reached the point when he will take over and finish it. His style is deceptively simple, his pieces are timeless in their grace and elegance.
Like Sylvester, Joe has achieved international renown. His work has been exhibited in the USA, Germany, Kenya, South Africa and Australia. He is one of the small club of Zimbabwean artists who are able to name their price. No haggling for Joe. He knows his worth.
Joe was introduced to sculpture by his older brother, Gregory, who is also successful, but whose approach to his art is, in contrast to that of his brother, frankly commercial. Gregory’s work consists almost entirely of variations on the theme of his �Bathing Sheba�. Sheba is shown over and over again, washing her long hair. Sometimes kneeling, sometimes standing, executed in different types of stone, but always the same figure. Gregory says laconically when asked why he does not vary his subject, �They sell.�
Over the six months of my assignment I met many sculptors, and some of them, like Sam Mabeu, became firm friends. Sam is one of the new talents to emerge in the movement and even though he is still comparatively young, his work has been promoted in the United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa and the United States. It was with Sam that I traveled to Guruwe to see how the stone is mined and it was by watching Sam at work, day after hot dreamy day under the trees at Hay Hill, that I gained an understanding and appreciation of processes and skill that go into carving the stone. And it was through Sam, his sisters and his mother and his friends, like Lovemore, mechanic par excellence, that I came to appreciate the gentle generous way of life of the people of Zimbabwe.
As the English summer approached, Viv completed her purchasing for her exhibition season and the time came to pack for the long journey north.
The chosen sculptures were at last gathered together on Zimsculpt’s lawn.
These pieces of stone had been mined out of the ground using only sweat, muscle and the simplest of tools. They had been carried from their birthing-place over pot-holed tracks in a vehicles invariably held together by a prayer and infinite ingenuity (spare parts are not easy to come by in Zimbabwe). They had slowly been brought to their present form with careful thought, inspiration, labour and technical skill. They had been sanded, heated, waxed, polished and buffed. Some of them had been the subject of furious argument and debate over their value.
Now, packing cases had to be custom-made for each individual piece. They were padded and wrapped and hauled into the container. Viv locked the door. It was time to go.
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