The forgotten heroes

In the l960s and l970s in England the sculpture of the late Sir Henry Moore captured the sublimity of the English landscape in the manner of Wordsworth’s poetry, the sculpture of Lynn Chadwick and Ken Armitage the futility and human folly of war in the way of the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. Armitage and Chadwick doffed their hats for their country, in the manner of those soldiers lining the trenches so evocatively portrayed in their sculpture. In those days sculpture was a noble rather than a sensational art, it was not made from cows and carcasses but from stones and wood and later metal. Moore traced the gentle contours of the British countryside, always inviting, never hostile, he made sculptures born to lie in pastures green, and his work gave character and feature to the landscape it lay in. Then Anthony Caro, during his days teaching at St Martins School of Art, took the most pedestrian of metal offerings, pieces of angle iron and steel offcuts and welded them up, painted them and made gravity defining sculptures, which seemed to levitate before the eye and then small works which cascaded from the table edge like sparking springs, even waterfalls. This was the time in Zimbabwe, the l960’s/70’s/early 80’s when individual sculptors working within a still nascent tradition, became sure of their stones, certain in their minds as to what they were doing, made their own decisions and choices rather than following those of their mentors. They were not so easily influenced by their cultural past, they explored their traditions on their own terms. Nicholas Mukomberanwa was a sculptor for all seasons, a man at home with his stones, his outlook on life, his spiritual position and his worldly wisdom. His sculptures showed a man at ease with his spiritual side, and he had an ability in his sculpture to drive a hard bargain with the corrupt, the greedy, and those who lusted after power for its own sake. He looked around him, he did not like what he saw and he said this in many of his sculptures. His work suggested to his audience that it too looked for spiritual strength and mortal wisdom. People were ‘set upon’ by Mukomberanwa’s sculptures, confronted by them. People were not at ease with his sculptures, they got in the way of their ordinary lives, and they made people look at their leaders, their ‘chefs’ in a new light. Then there was ‘My Spirit and I’, ‘Me and My Spirit’ sculptures which proclaimed that any decent man should admit to a spiritual side, develop it, work it for the common good. His sculptures were made from blocks of stone, they were angular and severe. The faces were assymetrical, mask like, showing the ‘public face’ a man would put on in the morning and take off in the privacy of his own room. Once in the early days people from the world over would come and sit at the feet of Nicholas Mukomberanwa as in ancient times they would sit at the feet of Socrates. If today people came to sit at the feet of his sculptures, the world would be a better place. Also in those early and middle days also there was the late Bernard Matemera of Tengenenge, a man totally steeped in his African culture, unaffected by experiences outside of his culture, even when he travelled by the modern world and Africa as part of that modern world. During his lifetime Matemera was recognised the world over as a great sculptor -oddly so because his work was enigmatic, withholding of meaning, not what it appeared to be and unbending to the Western viewer. Tom Blomefield Founder Director of Tengenenge comments ” A man may have eyes but he could not see what Bernard Matemera saw. His work came from very deep and private feelings about spirits and his culture, he saw things with his imagination which no one else could see, his work might not have been pretty or beautiful but it’s impact on the viewer was such that it became great sculpture in the eyes of people all over the world” His huge naked, sexually explicit or ambiguous sculptures appealed to those whose notions of sexuality were influenced by Jung and Freud in particular Freud’s interpretation of dreams. He kept that part of him which was an artist to himself, he gave to people that part of him which was a man, a jovial, helpful considerate man, a man who loved and indeed commandeered the community life at Tengenenge, a man who loved his stones and would say to Tom Blomefield in times of worry ” We’ve got our stones, Sir”.He was a man who liked a beer, a man who had a thriving duck farm, a man who drew young sculptors to him like bees are drawn to a honey pot. But he was a great sculptor a man who fashioned his stones into archaic arcane immutable shapes which have their place in the history of Africa and its art, the history of sculpture and its more exotic outposts such as Easter Island. History has taken its toll on the development of Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture -today its origins, its beginnings, the keeping alive the great names, these things are glossed over , the early and great sculptors are consigned away and people turn to the attraction of the stone sculpture ‘ as a means of employment, stone sculpture as a means of income generation, stone sculpture as an aspect of job creation.’ All these things the stones may bring about and certainly the making of sculpture keeps people off the streets, pays the rent and the school fees. But it does these things because in the early and middle days Mukomberanwa, Matemera, Munyaradzi gave name and fame to a tradition of sculpture in a small Southern Africa country, and elevated Zimbabwean culture and thinking to a level of those of Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy which also spawned great traditions of sculpture. Those early sculptors also gave a name to a movement of sculpture in Zimbabwe in what was happening in contemporary African art. So today we look back, lest we forget those who have lifted up their tools for their country, their culture and their traditions, and put these things on the world stage. l To be continued next week

April 2006
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