History of sculpture in Zimbabwe

African sculpture is something most people are aware of, mainly in the form of wooden masks and other religious objects, used in traditional ceremonies and dances. In the past East Africa and especially West Africa, produced a wealth of these objects, whereas carved artefacts are much rarer in the vast savannahs of Southern Africa.

One significant exception to this is Great Zimbabwe the largest stone archaeological site in Southern Africa and former home of the kings of the Shona Kingdom. “Zimbabwe” is a contraction of a Shona phrase meaning “stone houses”. After independence the country was renamed Zimbabwe replacing the previous name, Rhodesia. During excavations at Great Zimbabwe several eagles carved from soapstone were discovered which represent the oldest stone carvings found in Zimbabwe dating to approximately 800 years ago.

Ruins of Great Zimbabwe
Ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

Although it is tempting to conjure a romantic vision of stone carving in Zimbabwe to be an ancient tradition passed down from the artisans who carved the famous eagles of Great Zimbabwe. In fact there is no physical connection between these ancient stone masons and the modern sculpture movement. In truth the modern sculpture movement grew spontaneously from a handful of artists in widely dispersed rural areas of the country in the 1950’s to become the largest contemporary art movement in Africa of the 20th Century.

Sculpture in the 20th century

Much of the early exposure of the Shona sculpture movement was a result of the efforts of Frank McEwan, a man well connected in the art world at that time, who became the first curator of the National Gallery of Rhodesia in 1957. Soon after arriving McEwen set up an unofficial workshop school encouraging local artists to express themselves through drawing and painting. Within a year stone had become the medium of choice for local artists.

The national gallery workshop school went on to produce many of the movement’s earliest stars and by the late sixties McEwan brought Shona sculpture to an international audience through a series of high profile exhibitions such as at the Musee Rodin in 1971.

Another figure who stimulated the growth of the movement was white tobacco farmer, Tom Blomefield. His farm was situated near Guruve, in northern Zimbabwe on the slopes of the Great Dyke in a place called Tengenenge, the source of some of the best sculpting stone in the country. In the 1950’s workers were attracted from across the Zambezi region from as far as Angola and Malawi to Blomefields farm.

Madora by first generation sculptor Nicholas Mukomberenwa
“Madora” by first generation sculptor Nicholas Mukomberenwa (Source: Carl Berger Snr, 2007).

In 1966 economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe forced him to find an alternative income for his workers and he encouraged them to carve the local stone, both to earn a living and to find a more meaningful life. Like McEwan he encouraged the artists to look within themselves searching their souls for inspiration, he offered advice and criticism when asked but mainly considered his role to support the sculptors as they learnt their craft.

Since then Tengenenge has survived through the turmoil of the independence struggle and more recent economic crises to become the largest sculpture cooperative in Zimbabwe. Tom Blomefields gentle character nurtured many of the movement’s most famous artists and Tengenege contributed a great number of artists to Frank McEwan’s early exhibitions.

However it would be misleading to attribute the incredibly fast growth of Zimbabwean sculpture solely to these western influences. It is important to remember that many of the forefathers of the movement were already sculpting and teaching others before coming into contact with Frank McEwan or Tom Blomefield.

Second generation sculptor Eddie Masaya
Second generation sculptor Eddie Masaya.

Progression through the generations

Since the first generation of Shona sculptors the movement has experienced huge growth. Many of the first and second generation of artists are now world famous and regarded as some of the best stone sculptors of the last century.  Today the movement continues to grow with a wealth of young sculptors brimming with talent. With new influences and inspirations these young artists strive to further their art form building on the knowledge passed down from the older generations of artists.

Perhaps the most exciting thing for us is the search to seek out new artists with the talent to produce truly stunning original pieces of art. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see how artists have developed new styles based on the influences around them.