The history of modern Zimbabwean sculpture

The beginnings of sculpture in Rhodesia (1950‘s and 1960‘s)
In former Rhodesia, sculpture developed from the tradition of African handicrafts. The most commonly used materials were wood, china clay, and wild grass. Objects such as stools, bolsters, and walking sticks were often decorated with animal or with anthropomorphic motifs and offered room for the artistic talents of craftsmen. The same applies to carved masks and statues used for ritual purposes. Modeling from clay in order to produce ceramics, or just as a pastime, also has a long tradition in Africa.

The first people to begin encouraging artistic activities among the indigenous black population were Christian missionaries. In 1940, a priest Canon Edward Paterson set up a primary school for black boys within the Cyrene mission. Pupils of the school gained a general education and some knowledge in agriculture and house building, as well as skills in woodcarving, drawing, painting and later in sculpture. Canon Paterson left the mission in 1953, but he continued teaching art until his death in 1974. Father Hans (John) Groeber founded a mission in Serima in 1948 in which he taught mainly woodcarving and drawing in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The main incentive for the development of modern art in Rhodesia was the foundation of Rhodes’s National Gallery in the capital city of Salisbury (Harare) in 1957. The first nominated director of Rhodes’s National Gallery was Frank McEwen, an English artist and art expert. The gallery was established in order to collect and exhibit works of western artists, and not to promote local Rhodesian art. However, McEwen soon recognised the artistic potential of Rhodesians whom he was meeting. So, he began to encourage and aid talented black artists in their own artistic production and he set up an unofficial art workshop with the gallery. At first, McEwen tried to encourage traditional African techniques of working with wood and straw, and to teach artists the basics of painting. However, the focus of the workshop changed following a meeting between McEwen and an amateur sculptor, Joram Mariga. Mariga brought stone sculptures, which he had created from soapstone, to the meeting. McEwen immediately understood the potential combination of working with the stone and the skills of the Rhodesians, so he focused the workshop on stone sculpture. Joseph Ndandarika, Boira Mteki and Thomas Mukarobgwa were among the first artists trained in the workshop.

Encouragement and financial support, which Joram Mariga was receiving from McEwen, enabled him to set up a small group of sculptors in the Nyanga Mountains, not far from the border with Mozambique. It was within this group that sculptors such as Crispen Chakanyuka, the brothers Bernard and John Takawira received their training.

In 1962 the works of Rhodesian painters and sculptors were first exhibited, and a tradition of regular exhibitions organised by the National Gallery began. A favorable reaction to these exhibitions enabled McEwan to establish an official art school (the Workshop School) with the National Gallery, and it was this institution that helped educate dozens of sculptors and painters in the following years.

In the spring of 1965 the Rhodesian government, under Ian Smith, proclaimed the independence of Rhodesia from Great Britain. Yet, other countries refused to recognise this and the UN imposed sanctions on Rhodesia. These, among other restrictions, prevented the country from exporting agricultural products. One of the farmers afflicted by this situation was Tom Blomefield. As a result of the loss of tobacco sales a lot of workers on his farm lost their jobs. Tom Blomefield decided to start creating statues alongside his workers in order to find a new way of earning a living both for himself and for his employees. Another favorable circumstance securing the future community of sculptors was the fact there were sources of high-quality stone for sculpting available near the farm. People from nearby farms and villages soon heard about the emerging community and started to come and try working with stone. Those who discovered an artistic talent within themselves began to settle down in this place, later named Tengenenge. When Tom Blomefield brought some of the first statues to the National Gallery, McEwen was excited and took Tengenenge under his protection.

In 1966 statues by sculptures from Tengenenge were first exhibited at the annual exhibition organised by the National Gallery and in the following years they continued in winning recognition. This period of Tengenenge is associated with artists such as Enos Gunja, Ephraim Chaurika, Sanwell Chirume, Edward Chiwawa, Bernard Matemera, Leman Moses, Sylvester Mubayi and Henry Munyaradzi.

The way to galleries around the world (the late 1960’s and early 1970’s)
McEwen tried to establish the new Rhodesian sculpture in the world as a fully-fledged movement of modern art. There were dozens of exhibitions in the USA (including the Museum of Modern Art in New York) and in South Africa in the years 1968 and 1969. In 1970 McEwen succeeded in organising an exhibition of the statues in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris (Musee d”arte Modeme de la Ville Paris – Art Faricanie Contemporain de la Communaute de Vukutu) and a year later he repeated the success, this time in Paris’s Rodin Museum (Sculpture Contemporaine des Shonas d’ Afrique). Other important exhibitions took place in the I.C.A. Gallery in London and in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, both in 1972. After these successful exhibitions Zimbabwean sculpture became a fully recognised movement of worldwide modern art.

Before 1969, the works from Tengenenge were exhibited (and sold) in exhibitions in the National Gallery and various other galleries in the world together with the works of artists from the National Gallery and from Nyanga, a third center in which the art of sculpture began to develop in Rhodesia. However, in 1969 Tom Blomefield decided to organise the exhibiting, exporting and selling of statues directly from Tengenenge, and not through the National Gallery, which led to a break up with McEwen and with the National Gallery. McEwen was focusing on the high artistic quality of the exhibited statues (though the only criterion being his own opinion), whereas Blomefield gave the sculptors a free hand in trying to gain recognition and to succeed commercially.

Shona art
Negative feelings from the world public towards the new Rhodesian establishment (and also towards art calling itself Rhodesian) in the early 1970‘s, a break-up with Tengenenge (which led to the need to differentiate sculptures coming from other centres in Rhodesia) and possibly also an effort to make the new Rhodesian art mysterious led McEwen to adopt a new strategy for the promotion of the statues – that is creating the term ‘Shona art‘. The Shona are the majority ethnic group in Zimbabwe (80%) and although not all artists in Zimbabwe are Shona, this term has been used to refer to modern Zimbabwean art ever since.

Civil war (late 1970’s)
Political tensions between the black majority and the white minority were escalating from the beginning of the 1970’s. Guerrilla groups were coming into the country from Mozambique and Angola trying to overthrow the minority white government. In 1973 the political atmosphere led McEwen to resign from the position of the director of the National Gallery. His support of black art was no longer acceptable to the trustees of the institution.

When he left the National Gallery, the Gallery artistic workshop began to decline and the main centre of sculpture in Rhodesia moved to Tengenenge. However, this period did not last long. The guerrilla war against the white government intensified in the mid 1970’s, and both cities and the country ceased being safe. People practically stopped creating and selling works of art.

Independent Zimbabwe (1980’s)
Sculpture started to develop again after 1980 when the white minority lost power in the country and the independent Republic of Zimbabwe was established. The long guerrilla war ended and the economic sanctions were called off. Once again Tengenenge became the centre of Zimbabwean sculpture. However, some artists such as Fanizani Akuda, Sylvester Mubayi or Henry Munyaradzi, who had left Tengenenge at the end of the 1970’s, did not return but decided to set up their own studios. However, the open society of sculptors in Tengenenge offered the space to other talented sculptors and a new generation of sculptors was established. This generation is represented, for example, by David Bangura, Davison Chakawa, Wonder Luke, Alice Musarara and Endronce Rukodzi. Furthermore, the artistic workshop was reopened with the National Gallery (renamed to the National Gallery of Zimbabwe) and the Gallery continued in the tradition of regular art exhibitions (renamed as the Zimbabwe Heritage in the mid 1980’s). An American Roy Guthrie became the only promoter of Rhodesian art abroad after McEwen left the National Gallery. Guthrie began organising exhibitions of successful sculptors in different countries, and in 1985 he founded the Chapungu Sculpture Gallery – a large sculpture park with a gallery and a studio on the outskirts of Harare. The artistic and commercial success of sculptors from Tengenenge, or those exhibiting their works at the Chapungu Sculpture Gallery, inspired other artists to set up small studios all around the country.

Years of prosperity (1990’s)
In the 1990’s sculpture in Zimbabwe flourished. The relative economic prosperity of the country fuelled sales of sculptures, both in Zimbabwe and abroad. An open-air exhibition was organised in Wageningen, in the Netherlands in 1989 and its success enabled Tom Blomefield and the sculptors from Tengenenge to introduce and sell their works at dozens of exhibitions in Western Europe, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. In the 1990’s sculptures from Zimbabwe also began to be sold in a number of small galleries around the world and with the emerging Internet, the galleries of Zimbabwean/Shona art spread to web pages as well.

Sculpture in the times of economic and political crisis (21st century)
Since the late 1990’s, and especially due to a land reform carried out in the year 2000, Zimbabwe has been struggling with a deep economic crisis. Hyperinflation completely disrupted the economy – Zimbabwe practically abandoned its currency and adopted the American dollar. It was mostly the larger sculpture studios that asserted themselves in the difficult situation of the first decade of the 21st century, some of the foremost being the studio of the sculptor Dominic Benhura, or the association Friends Forever, founded by Mike Munyaradzi. In December 2007 Dominic Benhura took over the sculpture settlement in Tengenenge from Tom Blomefield, who due to his age had failed to provide it with strong leadership in several previous years. Thanks to this change there is some hope that the forty-year tradition of the sculpture community, as well as modern Zimbabwean sculpture itself, will continue.