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stone sculpture touches hearts in Canada
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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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Attention: Shona sculpture
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