Embassy of Korea at Tengenenge

Tengenenge is seen in international art circles as a virtual cultural site in Zimbabwe, a place where African traditions remain articulated through stone sculpture ,music, masquerade and dance, a place where these things are part of the “natural life” of people and a marked sphere of influence over their lives and thinking.

All art forms practised at Tengenenge are a vast repository of the traditional intangible culture of not only Zimbabwe, but the neighbouring countries of Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola. Forty years on, Tengenenge today remains close to its cultural origins and the cultural imperatives which formed the beginning of and consolidated the community. Traditional social structures remain to consolidate community life, the extended family,inter-marriages which strengthen ties between families, inherent customs such as respect for elders, and respect for women whether cast in the role of matriarch and mother or sculptor. If a tradition of art is to be perpetuated, it must not lose sight of its origins and Tengenenge sculpture remains much in touch with the cultural concerns of the original Tengenenge artists both from Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries. Spiritually and socially, Tengenenge’s roots remain and these roots have much to do with the flourishing of the community today. Tengenenge itself makes young sculptors, some even from an urban background, conscious and proud of their spiritual history and their cultural past, and provokes in them some kind of necessity to represent these things in their sculpture. Tengenenge today is respected for its roots which have not withered and died but still flourish as determining how people live and the content of their sculpture. There is a sense of the “continuous past” at Tengenenge, and in its sculpture. For example, in the work of younger sculptors Douglas Shawu and Issa Sims images of the Nyau mask emerge, perhaps more stylised and sophisticated than its representation in the work of the original Chewa sculptors but nonetheless forming the basis of their work.

But Tengenenge has ‘ and has had for some time ‘ a recognised and respected place in the international art world. At Tengenenge it is a matter of Mahomet comes to the mountain. Many people who come to Zimbabwe like their African culture “neat” rather than diluted by Western influence. They may not find this in the capital or in the cities. To gallerists and dealers from outside of Zimbabwe, Tengenenge is not some remote outpost, some quaint anachronism within a stone sculpture movement bent on moving with the times and somehow fitting with what is made in stone in other countries. These people make what is tantamount to a pilgrimage to Tengenenge, their “Holy Grail” of Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture. While many of the first generation of sculptors outside of those at Tengenenge have left us, some remain at Tengenenge. Amali Mailolo, 86 years old, still carves his memories of crocodiles and birds on Lake Malawi onto his stones. Josia Manzi, 70 years old, weaves in his sculptures stories from Yao folklore, the doings of snakes and crocodiles and women. But despite the presence of international visitors, Tengenenge has made few inroads into the local art situation in Zimbabwe. Lack of communication facilities make it problematic for sculptors to be informed of competitions and exhibitions which might take place in the capital.

It is, therefore, welcome that the Embassy of the Republic of South Korea in Zimbabwe has seen fit two years running to sponsor and organise a competition for Tengenenge sculptors. These competitions turn Tengenenge into a “land of opportunity” for all who make sculpture within the community ‘ men women and children. The embassy sees similarities between Tengenenge and the Republic of Korea ‘ in both people benefit from the connection they have with their spiritual history, their cultural past, these things have a profound and lasting effect upon their lives. A comment in the essay in the catalogue “Contemporary Art from Korea” for a travelling exhibition organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Korea, the Korea Foundation and other organisations ‘ “Korean society began to explore the problems of human life and modern civilisation and at the same time created a new spiritual climate based on the re discovery of traditional culture” ‘ applies as much to Tengenenge as it does to the Republic of Korea. Another analogue between the Republic of Korea and Tengenenge is the close relationship of artists to nature. The artists in both countries in their work take nature further than what can be seen. They see nature as something of which they are part, nature as an active determinant as to how life is fashioned from beginning to end. Engagement with nature, it seems, empties the mind of material and finite preoccupations and creates a “space” for creativity and concentration on the art work alone.

In his speech at the Award Presentation at the Exhibition in June 2006 the Ambassador for the Republic of Korea in Zimbabwe Park Jong Soon spoke of the way “sculpture reminds people of their history and spirit” and showed his appreciation for the way that Tengenenge artists showed their respect for traditional spiritual values by representing their operation in their sculpture. Both the judging and the award-winning ceremony took place on the windswept rocks outside Tengenenge’s museum. Here nature was “in the air” as much as having its being in the trees and grasses. The wind could be both heard and felt, it was part of nature, part of the experience of those there as much as the small patches of sun which peeped through the trees and the cold which shook the bones.

Despite this, the Tengenenge artists were out in force. The sculptures ranged in size from small works which largely had the presence of far larger works and large works which somehow did not dominate the small works despite their size and scale. Some kind of harmony was thus achieved, some kind of sense of equal being.

The judges Ambassador Park and Celia Winter Irving looked beyond the surface of the stone and past its beauty to be concerned with what the sculptures had to say. They looked at abstract work which seemed to convey the mood and inner feelings of the sculptor as he or she worked on the stone. They looked at works which ranged from simple to stylised and stylish renditions of family life and the primeval primitive love of a mother for her first-born child. They looked at sculptures by young sculptors who seemed to have memorised what they had been taught about the Nyau being the earliest cultural feature at Tengenenge. They looked at sculptures which explored the sculptors’ close appreciation and understanding of the natural world and nature at Tengenenge.

The award-winning ceremony took place on June 27, 2006. The sculptors were there, their wives, with their silent knowing expressions, their children, wriggling like tadpoles in a pond. There were young media people looking at Tengenenge with new and wondering eyes. Women sculptors are not “things apart” at Tengenenge, not made special by virtue of their sex and gender,.They are “out there” with their male counterparts. Often husbands express their need for the company of their wife by giving her stone and tools and having her sculpt by his side. So Janet Manzi has done so for 30 years with her husband Josia and today Elizabeth Simms, a modern woman, takes to the stones with her husband Issa.

So there was an award for women sculptors, this year won by Erina Gosta, a woman who has passed the stage of being a young woman making bright virtually na’ve paintings of the tales of her father, the late Barankinya Gosta, about Chewa myth, and become a mature woman, a serious sculptor who presented the competition with a sculpture of the faces of family members, dark images etched deep into a large piece of burnished springstone which, catching the afternoon sun at Tengenenge, seemed to glow. Second was Agassa Mailolo, daughter of Amali ,and his wife Kilala, who heaped up a pile of dark green frogs into a column of stone. Third was Janet Manzi, wife of Josia, who placed a head upon a stone, something intangible and beyond interpretation. Of the children, Liana Manzi came first (niece of Josia and Janet) with a head, a classic head in any veritable tradition of sculpture.

Of the men, the first prize was awarded to Douglas Shawu, who presented a new and very modern variation upon his theme of the Nyau mask, a stone almost slit in two so that the white underside of the stone was apparent, a sculpture which focused on the mask as “object” rather than cultural artefact, and something of great beauty. Second was Nimrod Phiri with a complex abstract work, all twirls and whirls in one stone, a dense sculpture which brought about optical illusions on the part of the viewer, a well thought out work and beautifully executed. Third was Amali Mailolo with a sculpture which told yet another story of life on Lake Malawi, with birds and snakes and crocodiles in one stone.

July 2006
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