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Zimbabwean stone sculpture touches hearts in Canada
Obert Madondo
October 27, 2005

If you stare at the life-sized green-and-brown abstract stone sculpture for a couple of minutes, in complete silence, you can hear its silent voice speaking directly to your soul. If you stare longer, or stay your attention on the tilted head, you may start contemplating the very meaning of life.

The sculpture is Zimbabwean, one of the more than 100 pieces on display in the spacious lobby of the T.D. Bank Tower in Toronto’s bustling financial district. It’s the first week of October and the Toronto leg of the 2005 "In Praise of Women: Stone Sculptures Created or Inspired by the Women of Zimbabwe" international exhibition series is winding up.

An annual exhibition is run by the African Millennium Foundation, a not-for-profit project dedicated to promoting the work of Zimbabwean women sculptors. The series started in 2003 and has drawn in excess of 200 000 people in Sweden, Denmark, UK and Canada. Amy Saunderson-Meyer, the exhibition’s manager is quick to welcome visitors and invite them to indulge themselves. She explains to every visitor how the Zimbabwe stone sculpture, also known as Shona sculpture, evolves."No power tools are used," she says. The sculptors use hammers and chisels to create the desired form and then polish the piece with sandpaper. Next, they heat the sculpture on an open fire, and apply beeswax, before polishing it with a soft cloth.

The next sculpture I notice is a maze of contrasting texture, color and shape. This effect is achieved when one part of the sculpture is sandpapered and polished, another part carved but not polished, while the rest is left in its natural state. The polished part is black; the carved, unpolished part is, white; the untouched part is a weather-beaten brown. Amy Saunderson-Meyer approaches cautiously again. "In the poor rural areas, sculptors make their own tools from bits of scrap metal," she says. Her organization replaces their poor-quality tools with new and appropriate ones in its "New-for-Old tool exchange program".

William Saunderson-Meyer, Director of the African Millennium Foundation and the curator of the series, spares no words explaining the quality of Zimbabwean stone sculpture. "I challenge anyone to see any of these works and not be stunned by their technical and artistic virtuosity - not be moved by the manner in which sculptors in an abandoned corner of a forgotten continent can touch the hearts of the most privileged people in the world - and not be humbled by the indomitable nature of the human spirit that lives in their work." He adds: "Shona stone sculpture is Zimbabwe’s unique contribution to the global village. Its sculptors have in the past 40 years established themselves as a major artistic force worldwide."

Newsweek once described Zimbabwean stone sculpture as "perhaps the most important art form from Africa in this century". Picasso was an admirer of Shona sculpture, and was even influenced by it, according to London’s Town and Country magazine. Some Zimbabwean stone sculptures call New York’s Museum of Modern Art home. Among celebrity private collectors are Sir Richard Attenborough and Prince Charles.

The sculptures on display in Toronto range in price from a few hundred Canadian dollars to five figures. A piece by one of Zimbabwe’s world famous sculptors can fetch up to US$150 000, Amy Saunderson-Meyer says. The exhibition is unique to the African Millennium Foundation’s women-oriented inspiration. Over 55 artists, mostly women, are represented at the Toronto exhibition. Most of the new artists were discovered during the organization’s annual Young Woman Sculptor of the Year competition, held in Harare.

Men dominated Zimbabwe stone sculpture when the current apreciation of Sona sculpture took off in the 50s and 60s. Then stone sculpting was often considered a man’s art, so that would-be women sculptors were discouraged from taking it up. As a result, Amy Saunderson-Meyer says, Zimbabwean women sculptors are not adequately represented internationally. One day they will claim their rightful place of recognition and respect, she says.

So, the continuing multi-faceted crisis in Zimbabwe has no influence on the African Millennium Foundation’s choice of women artists? The majority of the pieces of sculpture on display speak the universal language of hope. They invite you to celebrate a woman’s place in society, to see the world through a woman's eyes. One piece depicts a communal celebration; another is titled "Angel Lady", and yet another, "Mamma Africa". A piece depicting an elderly woman is titled "A Woman of Years". Other pieces celebrate pregnancy, marriage, maternal bond and love.

But I believe that art never completely ignores the environment in which it is born. Semina Mpofu’s piece, titled "Hard Times", therefore, for me, aptly summarizes the current situation in Zimbabwe: 75% of the workforce is unemployed, more than half of the country’s 12 million people need food and 80% of the population live in poverty.

Brenda Mukomberanwa is the winner of the African Millennium Foundation’s 2005 Young Woman Sculptor of the Year competition. Her "Outcast" piece speaks for both Zimbabwe’s urban dweller and the Diaspora. Mugabe’s recent Operation Murambatsvina, a clean-up of urban settlements, left 700 000 people homeless and 3,5 million others vulnerable. In the last six years at least three million Zimbabweans have escaped from grinding poverty and Mugabe’s brutal regime.

For me the political undertone is unmistakable in some of the pieces. What’s Netsai Mukomberanwa’s "The Prophet" saying of Zimbabwe’s future? What’s "The Thinker" by Chitungwiza’s Racheal Ellon really thinking in these hard times in Zimbabwe? If the private thoughts of Wangai Chilenga’s "Listening to her Thoughts" piece were to be made public, I suspect they would they earn her jail time.

While complete animal and partial human forms are common in Zimbabwean stone sculpture, it’s the abstract form that has made Zimbabwean sculptors incomparable, international sculpting maestros. Abstract art gives itself to infinite interpretations and can be as mysterious as Locardia Ndandarika’s "Wrapped in Mystery" piece. Zimbabwean stone sculpture has always been shrouded in mystery. Scholars say this sculpting genius can be traced back 1000 of years.

The strongest evidence to this claim are the soapstone bird sculptures found among the stone ruins of the Great Zimbabwe, an ancient city of around AD 1200. The sculptures stood on the city’s walls as monoliths. The Zimbabwe Bird is on the country’s currency and coat of arms. Historians are yet to explain why the art form "disappeared" after the demise of this Iron Age African civilization around the 15th century.

The African Millennium Foundation is continuing the work started by pioneers in the international promotion of Zimbabwean stone sculpture. Shona sculpturing re-emerged with a vengeance in the 1950s when sculptures started appearing for sale to tourists. In the early 1960s, the late Frank McEwen, who was deeply devoted to nurturing indigenous Zimbabwean art, founded the Workshop School at the National Gallery of Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe). He invited sculptors to exhibit at the gallery, provided materials, space and offered criticism. McEwen’s tireless advocacy culminated in the first international exhibition of Shona sculpture in Musee Rodin, Paris, in 1971.

The African Millennium Foundation supplies materials, marketing support and a 6-month scholarship to deserving women sculptors. William Saunderson-Meyer is determined to keep the talent that produces Shona sculture afloat. "If, however, one takes the trouble to cast the net wide, and to build long term relationships with promising artists, one finds that there remains a treasure chest of talent," the business man art lover says. The Zimbabwe programs of the African Millennium Foundation, Amy Saunderson-Meyer adds, will continue. International tours will in future embrace more Western cities.

The African Millennium Foundation is a natural partner in the quest for Zimbabwe stone sculpture’s eternal life. The present sculpture movement in Zimbabwe is self-regenerating. The artists can be grouped into First Generation artists, the 50s and 60s pioneers; Second Generation artists and Third Generation artists. Wives, daughters and sons of First Generation artists are dominant among the second and third generations. Each is a talented artist in their own right. Locardia Ndandarika, Zimbabwe’s first female sculptor, was wife to the late sculpting virtuoso, Joseph Ndandarika. Walter Mariga, son of Joram Mariga, considered the father of Zimbabwean Shona sculpture, is currently Artist-in-Residency at the Rice Lake Gallery in Peterborough, outside Toronto.

The Guruve-based Tengenenge sculpting colony, Harare’s Chapungu Sculpture Park and the private sculpting studios of renowned sculptors continue to produce world-class sculptors. For me, this international exhibition series exposes the world to the unbreakable Zimbabwean spirit that aspires to unity, peace and justice. I agree with William Saunderson-Meyer who says, "Here’s work that attests to the indomitable nature of the human spirit in the face of adversity, to the perennial strength of the artistic vision, even under the most straitened circumstances." He continues, "This international traveling exhibition of sculpture by Zimbabwean women is both a triumph of the human spirit and a rebuttal of a peculiar arrogance among some in Western societies who imagine that nothing can come from Africa but misery and curios."

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