Back to Index
Experience carved in stone
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
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
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
"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
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."
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.
Please credit www.kubatana.net if you make use of material from this website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.