Bringing stone to life
The face cut into the stone seems to express surprise and awe, as though seeing the world for the first time. Sculptor Sylvester Mubayi, one of several dozen artists in the Zimbabwe sculpture exhibit at the South Shore Arts Centre, carved the face on just one surface, leaving the natural state of serpentine to frame it.
Titled “Spirit Emerging” it is one of the riveting examples of the Zimbabwe belief that sculptors give form to the life within rocks. “Zimbabweans believe that everything is endowed with spirit,” said Russell Schneider, who owns the dozens of works in the exhibit “Transforming African Modernism: 25 Years of Zimbabwe Stone Sculpture.”
Schneider, who grew up in Holbrook and now lives in Southboro, began collecting stone sculpture in 1982 when he worked in computer sales in Zimbabwe and was impressed by the artists he met at an agricultural fair.
“They had no opportunities because of apartheid and were not educated or trained, but they expressed themselves through these beautiful works,” said Schneider, who visited Zimbabwe about four times a year for more than a decade and became friends with many of the artists.
In the years since the former Southern Rhodesia achieved Independence from Britain in 1980, contemporary stone sculptures have gained worldwide recognition as one of the most important African art forms. When Richard Attenborough came to Zimbabwe to film the story of South African dissident Steven Biko, he shipped 29 crates of sculpture home to England.
“It used to be a chore to get people to realise that these were original fine artists working in new mediums,” said Schneider, who curated the exhibit, which runs through November 2. “There was a revolution in the expression of African art and the art form exploded in popularity.”
The exhibit features works by two dozen artists from 1980 to 2005, which express the intimacy of family bonds, the joy of independence, the resilience of spirit and the pain of violence.
Heather Collins, the art centre’s director of community programming, said the exhibit overturned her conception of African art, which had been based on works from West and East Africa. “The astonishing thing to me is how different this is,” she said. “Visitors walk in and go, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’”
In creating art, these sculptors used what their country has in abundance – the longest linear mass of volcanic rock, known as The Great Dyke. The country’s name, in fact, come from its 14th century stone settlements, called zimbabwes.
Instead of ceremonial and cultural objects such as terra cotta and bronze figures and wooden masks and statues, these artists – mostly from the Shona – made realistic and semi-abstract human figures and animals from brown and black serpentine and spring stone, green leopard rock, purple lepidolite and other rocks.
Chiseling and hammering, sanding and polishing, they brought silky surfaces from the rugged stone. Reflecting their connection to their country’s abundant wildlife, these sculptors saw in the stones a stork and an antelope, a hare and a baboon.
The importance of family can be seen in Dominic Benhura’s sculptures of mothers playing with their children, and in the cheek-to-cheek faces of an old and a young woman by Nicholas Mukomberanwa.
Artist Chituwa Jemali envisioned a better world in “Living in Harmony,” a carving of three profiles in black, brown and light gray, each an aspect of a single piece of serpentine, and in “Facing the Future”, where a long-necked woman turns her face up the sky, while a ream of hair flows down her neck.
Artist Joseph Mutasa celebrates the country’s freedom in “No Looking Back” and in “Rejoice,” as expressed by regal long-necked women in polished black serpentine. Along with many beautiful works, there are sobering ones. In “War Victim,” Joseph Muzondo, who fought in the war of Independence, carved a face in profile and set it on a rock, as though it had fallen after an attack. – The Patriot Ledger