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Experience carved in stone
Lauren Gelfond Feldinger, Jerusalem Post
September 14, 2008

When Dominic Benhura was a child in rural Zimbabwe, he could never have imagined that he'd become an artist with works in the collections of presidents and princesses.

He grew up an unschooled orphan in a thatched-roof hut sealed with bark and mud. His father dropped dead for unknown reasons when he was still in his pregnant mother's womb.

Without electricity in the village, he awoke with the sun and, from the age of four, walked the dirt paths past hares, monkeys and baboons to help his widowed mother support the family of seven.

In the fields of the Murehwa district, they tilled the scorched soil and planted crops of corn, peanuts, tomatoes and onions. They did their best, as drought, disease and political upheaval ravaged the region.

Thanks to a paternal aunt who brought him to the big city in Harare, the Zimbabwe capital, Benhura would go to school starting at age nine and at the same time become an after-school apprentice to a cousin who sculpted in the local serpentine stone.

He had never before seen works of art or even modern electrical structures, like traffic lights. He would walk the main streets to gape. Even the sight of the brick and asbestos schoolhouse sent his eyes wild.

Benhura's fortune was changing quickly. But it was the way that working with serpentine stone felt on his hands that would really seal his fate.

By age 12, he was already making independent works and selling them to local architects. At 16, after becoming a name on the sculpture circuit, he was paying his own school tuition and fees and supporting his mother and siblings back home. As his standard of living improved, his biggest dream was to buy his mother a house in Harare so the family could be reunited.

When he turned 20, he decided that his studies of biology, chemistry and mathematics were taking too much time from his stone work, and he dedicated his days exclusively to sculpting.

It paid off: Two years later he had earned enough money selling works to buy the dream house for his family. But before his mother could make the trip, she, like his father years earlier, collapsed and did not recover. Later, though, he bought houses nearby for his siblings.

Now, at age 40, all the early experiences of loss, living without parents, without an education, without electricity and without access to help are being channeled into creation. His career, he says, is not only about creating works of art in stone. He is also committed to creating opportunities for the forlorn children of Africa.

According to UNICEF, there are approximately one million orphans in Zimbabwe, primarily because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic there. Benhura has also lost friends to the disease.

Benhura now invests a portion of all of his income toward philanthropic projects, such as building schools and libraries for African children, financing electricity and computers for their rural schools, and supporting an unusual artists' village isolated in the bush country, he says.

At Tengenenge in Zimbabwe, 250 artists, their families and the orphans they care for are living in huts in the open-air sculpture garden, where they work and display their sculptures. Benhura pays for their living expenses, electricity, supply of tools and stone, and for the transportation of the serpentine from the quarries. He is their mentor. And 35 percent of their earnings are reportedly fed back into a communal fund.

Over the years, a number of Jewish and Israeli collectors in Southern Africa have purchased Benhura's works.

His connection to the Jewish community started some 20 years ago when Jewish gallery owners Liz Salomon and Melanie Raizon, who had lived previously in Zimbabwe and were then running a gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, visited his workshop and offered him a show. A long partnership and friendship emerged.

"He's become famous over time," says Salomon, on a trip to Israel last week to promote Benhura's first Israeli exhibition at the Sissman Gallery in Tel Aviv.

"He gives back to the community all the time; he is the most incredible person. He knows what it is to be an orphan and he goes around to orphanages and gives them blankets and clothes, and through education, helps them to find freedom, integrity and dignity."

When Salomon and Raizon suggested Benhura come to Tel Aviv for an exhibition, he quickly said yes. "I was so excited," Benhura says. "Everyone [in Zimbabwe] knows about Israel from the Bible; it's so interesting and I've always wanted to come here."

Most of the population back home is Catholic, he said.

The Tel Aviv show is primarily Benhura's sculptures, but it also includes a selection of artists from the art colony.

Ten percent of the proceeds from any works he sells in Israel will be donated to the Tengenenge artists and orphans, he said. "There is no school and no clinic. I am raising money to build [them]."

A lot of Israeli collectors have made their way through Cape Town to the heritage site at the Boschendal Wine Estate where Salomon and Raizon run the Munhutapa gallery.

Collectors of Benhura's work, in addition to Israeli collectors, include jazz artist Jimmy Cliff, US-NBC anchor Katie Couric, Queen Matilda of Norway and Princess Maxima of Holland, Salomon said, as well as other prominent figures who did not want their names revealed.

In 2006, Nelson Mandela heard about Benhura's sculptures and his work with children and decided to commission a sculpture for the garden in his office in Johannesburg. "But I decided to donate the work instead of selling it," said Benhura. "They invited me to fly there and present it personally."

For his work with AIDS orphans, Benhura was also commissioned by the UNAIDS convention to design trophies for AIDS activities, one of which remains in its permanent collection, he said.

Children provide him with endless inspiration, he explained. "I want the viewer to feel the way I feel when I see children playing in the field or smiling. I also deal with negative [issues], like HIV."

Benhura was in Israel from Wednesday to Sunday. His works and works from the Tengenenge art colony in Zimbabwe will be on display at the Sissman Gallery on Rehov Hayarkon 98, Tel Aviv, through September 27.

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