Book elevates Zim’s stone sculpture

Recently, I got an e-mail message from her and another one from the Zimbabwe-German Society, both inviting me to come and celebrate with them and others, the launch of Winter-Irving’s 11th book on sculpture, Following the Footsteps of Wisdom: Merchers Chiwawa Sculptor. I attended the colourful book launch ceremony that was held on the 30th of March at the Zimbabwe-Germany Society headquarters in Harare, the capital city. At the end of the ceremony I was given a copy of the book to review. In Following the Footsteps of Wisdom: Merchers Chiwawa Sculptor Winter-Irving is at her best again following another excellent piece of work in Pieces of Time (Mambo Press 2005). Her latest book was published by Bastian Muller Director of Shona Art in Witten in Germany (March 2006). In this book Winter-Irving narrates and describes the life and works of one of Zimbabwe’s stone sculptors, Merchers Chiwawa with such artistry that transforms Chiwawa into stone and stone into Chiwawa. In fact when I read the 40-paged book, I could not separate the life of Chiwawa from stone sculpture and vice-versa. Following the Footsteps of Wisdom: Merchers Chiwawa Sculptor is unique in the sense that each of the 35 pages of full text are in both English and Deutsch, making it an instant demand on the international market as such bilingual books are not so commonly available. In the section ‘Portrait of the Artist’, Winter-Irving traces the life of Merchers Chiwawa to his rural Guruve humble beginnings with his father initiating him into stone sculpture at a tender age. As the author puts it: “His father told him that stones were not for a child to play around with, or to throw in the water or at a baboon on the side of the road. Stones have a purpose in life, they were to give someone a sense of direction, even a reason for what they would do with life.” It appears these words of wisdom formed the basis of Merchers Chiwawa’s stardom he now celebrates in stone sculpture.This foundation was further strengthened by the support and encouragement the young sculptor got from Tom Blomefield, the Founder Director of the famous Tengenenge in Guruve and from another renowned sculptor, the late Bernard Matemera. In his own words Merchers Chiwawa pays tribute to the two men: “It’s all a matter of pride, not just in my sculpture but of the tradition which made what I do famous and Tengenege which made me a sculptor. There are those who came before me who made me what I am. Without the late Bernard Matemera, without Tom Blomefield I would be no one, and nowhere, I would not even be.” The author also suggests that Merchers Chiwawa’s Christian background gives him discipline and the drive to concentrate on his stone work. Chiwawa says “I grew up in the Mukaera Church, I followed the footsteps of wisdom and I still do.” The legendary Mukaera was a woman who ‘rose from a coma and began to speak the word of God outside the bible” in Guruve and her Church is still thriving in Guruve. The author also shows that it requires a lot of patience to do books on individuals sculptors. She comments: “Writing books on individual sculptors demands of the author a friendship with the subject and sharing his life experience. He was greened in sculpture at Tengenenge. I was greened in Africa at Tengenenge. I have spent many hours watching his stones grow and be formed into sculptures showing the wealth of his African traditions, his commitment to Christian beliefs, and his humour and African wisdom. He cares for stone, he cares for fellow sculptors, Tom Blomefield and his family.” The magnificent picture of his family and a sculpture on page 6 say it all. The section of the book titled ‘Sculptures’ gives a glimpse of some of the marvellous sculptures Merchers Chiwawa has made. Of particular interest is the sculpture ‘Tobacco Leaf’ which is on page 23 and on the front cover of the book. The significance of the tobacco leaf in stone is that “the first sculptors [around Tengenenge] were tobacco farm workers and pickers in the tobacco fields . . . So ‘Tobacco Leaf’ symbolises the start of Tengenenge, the beginning of the beginning,” explains Chiwawa. ‘The Maria’ is another interesting piece depicting Mary and her Son Jesus Christ both with African facial features. Winter-Irving notes “His ‘Maria’ ha been commissioned by another Catholic Church in Europe and he sees this as a means of deepening people’s faith in the truth of Christ’s mother and the Son.” To emphasis the importance of good family relations, Winter-Irving describes Chiwawa’s ‘The family’ piece in the book. There is a husband and a wife and two children, a boy and a girl ‘ all the four figures surprisingly hanging in one stone. The author comments: “Here is an example of how being members of a family brings and keeps people together, makes them the same, gives them the same attitudes and outlooks on life.” ‘The King’s Wish’ sculpture again shows a husband and a wife with two children, a boy and a girl. The interpretation here is somehow different as this sculpture satisfies most European kings’ wish, that the first child must be male “so that the son when his parents are old can take responsibility for them and his sister.” The other sculptures in the book include ‘Spiritual Woman’, ‘Embracing Lovers’, ‘Communication Between Three People’, ‘Fish Eagle’, ‘Flower’, ‘Comforter’, ‘Magic Man’, ‘The Lovers’, ‘Raising Up The Family’ and ‘Dreadlocks’. Each of the above sculptures tells a different story. Each has a theme, characters, a plot and setting. We also find metaphor, imagery and symbolism iin each of the sculptures sampled in the book. Winter-Irving makes it easy and interesting to read the book by adopting her usual style, that of being conversational but at the same time making vivid descriptions and explanations of the sculpture. In addition to this, the reader is kept hooked to the book by the attractive colour pictures of the sculptures found almost on every page of the book. If you have never appreciated stone sculpture before, this book will make you change your attitude towards these seemingly dead pieces of stone. However there are few spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors that could have been easily avoided by thorough editing and proofreading. Despite these shortcomings, Following the Footsteps of Wisdom: Merchers Chiwawa Sculptor will definitely go places, and with it the Zimbabwean traditions and flag. This book uplifts Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture both locally and internationally and it is a very welcome development at this time.

April 2006
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