Though Shona Sculpture is sometimes compared to the work of Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani or other Western masters, we knew the Shona of the mountain highlands had never seen their work. Isolated from the West by geography and politics, the Shona looked winthin for inspiration – within their own land, within their own spiritual legacy.” – Anthony and Laura Ponter , Spirits of Stone
Stone sculpture from Zimbabwe is often called Shona sculpture, named after Shona people, the largest tribe engaged in sculpting. Zimbabwe derived from the Shona word dzimbadzamabwe (which means ‘house of stone’), is the only country on the African continent that has large deposits of stone suitable for sculpting.
Shona sculpture has its roots firmly implanted within Shona tradition and spirituality. Shona sculpture is a spontaneous expression of Shona spirituality. Ancestral spirits (midzimu) play a big part in traditional Shona culture and they are believed to have a great influence on how the sculptures turn out. Shona Sculptors believe that every rock contains the spirit essence and each sculpture is shaped by the will of the spirit in the rock. They believe that during the sculpting, it is the spirit not the artist that transforms the stone. In the words of Bernard Matemera, one of the more world renowned Shona sculptors: “The spirits are everywhere in the air, in the rocks. A rock is like a fruit – like an orange or a banana. You don’t eat them without peeling them first. It needs to be opened to be eaten. I open the rocks. The fruit is inside.”
The artist ‘works’ together with his stone and it is believed that ‘nothing which exists naturally is inanimate’- it has a spirit and life of its own. One is always aware of the stone’s contribution in the finished sculpture. The subject matter can be seen as continuing a rich cultural heritage that had previously been mainly oral (folklore) and ritual. The various spirit guises, animal metamorphoses, and spirit mediums are all represented.
Contemporary Shona Sculptors draw extensively for inspiration on traditional culture: the mythology, folklore, rituals and beliefs in ancestral spirits that remain strong strands even in contemporary, urban Zimbabwean life. Women are also a significant source of inspiration: the nude torso, the dancing girl, mother and child are depicted in a myriad of ways. The natural world and man’s relationship with nature is another important theme. The sculptures they produce speaks of fundamental human experiences such as grief, elation, humour, anxiety and spiritual search.
Stone carving has been part of the Zimbabwean culture since 1200 AD when Great Zimbabwe, an archeological masterpiece of their early ancestors, was built. In ancient times stone was used extensively for building and for decorative purposes. The Great Zimbabwe settlement, now a World Heritage Site, is testimony to the skill and artistry of the ancestors of today’s sculptors. Built between the 11th and 15th centuries, at a time when Europe was just emerging from the Dark Ages, these accomplished stone masons used hand-hewn granite blocks to painstakingly and precisely build ornate towers and enclosures – all free of mortar. Parts of the settlement combine natural rock formation and dry stone construction – the two blending aesthetically and functionally. The stone birds of Great Zimbabwe produced some four centuries ago are earliest known pieces of Shona sculpture.
Centuries later, in the late 1950s, Frank McEwen, the founding curator of the National Gallery of what was then Southern Rhodesia(now Zimbabwe), recognizing the Shona peoples’ affinity with stone, and their innate creativity, established a sculpture workshop at the Gallery and invited the participation of aspiring stone sculptors. There was no attempt to instruct. Those who were interested were simply given the tools and the stone. As McEwen described it, their work revealed “the images they bore in their souls”. No technical training was given. The sculptors learned from one another and taught one another. This mentoring tradition continues today. Aspiring artists learn by watching the masters, by observing the stone and finally by picking up the tools and applying themselves to the stone.
It is only after this period that Shona sculpture enjoyed a bit of a renaissance and eventually gained worldwide prominence. Ever since Shona sculpture earned itself a secure niche in the art galleries and markets of the developed world and is collected on a large scale, exported by the tonne by galleries and private dealers, exhibited in universities, museums, galleries and parks in the West.
The extraordinary success of ‘Shona sculpture’ both as a commodity and as an aesthetic object derives in large part, although not entirely, from its authenticity, its rooted connection with African modes of thought, and in its African aesthetic. The artists’ lack of training and models and their natural, untutored, authentic skill also adds to the allure of Shona sculpture.