art shona, african
Collection's Home
 Works-1  Works-2  Works-3  Works-4  Works-5  Works-6

Cultural Origins (3)

The sculpture of the Shona artists varies in style, evidence of the fact that Shona beliefs are not collectively held or formally expressed but are matters of the individual's relationship with the spiritual realm. The stylistic differences among the artists reflect the fact that Shona beliefs are open to interpretation by the individual. Although Shona sculptors may have a shared perception of the observance of beliefs, treatment of the subject is highly idiosyncratic. To many Shona sculptors, what matters is the allowance in Shona beliefs for a personal relationship with the spiritual realm, and the use of the word---spirit-in the title of a sculpture is indicative of this relationship. A common stylistic feature of Shona sculpture is respect for the stone. Often the original form of the stone is retained, and the subject is often seen as inherent in that form. Mass is seldom broken up by space, and the form of the sculpture is monolithic. In Shona sculpture the natural surface of the stone is often left uncarved, highlighting the importance of the natural properties of the material.

In Shona sculpture, the spirit world is usually represented in terms of its effect upon the natural world and presented in anthropomorphic terms. Presentation of subject is usually literal rather than fantastic or allegorical, as it is in Yao and Chewa sculpture. Because of the personal nature of Shona beliefs, there is little collective imagery in Shona sculpture, and there is no imagist recourse made to the few objects associated with spiritual practice. For example, in a Shona sculpture by Lazarus Takawira titled Spirit Hare, a hare will be represented as a hare with spiritual attributes rather than a spirit with the attributes of a hare. In a sculpture depicting metamorphosis, the subject is not presented in a trance-like state, but as an ordinary man or animal undergoing metamorphosis. Often the metamorphosis takes place before our eves, so that the subject becomes a mixture of man and spirit. Shona sculpture often depicts creatures from the real world whom the Shona believe are invested with spiritual powers. The bataleur eagle is the bearer of spiritual messages, and the dendera bird announces the coming of rain. If these themes recur in the work of a number of artists, it is an indication of their importance in Shona beliefs. Shona sculptors such as Nicholas Mukomberanwa also depict those who hold institutional positions of power in Shona society: the old aunt (vatete), the medium, the chief, and the mediator. Despite the highly individual character of each sculpture, individuals are seldom depicted, which represents the traditional unimportance of individual achievement in Shona society.

Like the sculpture of the Yao, the Chewa and the Mbunda, Shona sculpture is conceptual rather than perceptual. The artists do not depict the subject as they literally see it, but as they imagine it to be. It is seldom possible to get close to animals in Africa, and the artists' impression of them is usually from a distance and in movement. Hence a representational treatment of subject based on close observance is difficult. Within Shona sculpture, the features of an animal or bird may be distorted to convey the emotions or mood of the subject, for example, agitation or excitement. The Shona's conceptualisation of the subject is based on the power of the imagination of the artist, possibly his personal association of the subject with its spiritual significance, his particular style and the shape, weight and hardness of the stone and the tools he uses. As the majority of the artists are Shona and, although urbanised, draw their subject matter from their traditional beliefs it is necessary to have some knowledge of these beliefs in order to fully understand the meaning of Shona sculpture.

The name "Shona" today collectively embraces the descendants of people who settled on the Zimbabwe plateau from about 900AD in the south and 1200AD in the north. The history of the Shona is largely oral, and findings to date have been established by archaeologists and linguists, together with oral historians, rather than historians. Traditionally the Shona, known earlier as the Karanga, lived in chiefdoms, the term conceptualised for those linked by patrilineal lineage living in one area. A series of dynasties or states have brought them together under one rule or the concentration of political power for periods of time. The actual polities of the Shona are known as zimbabwes, the best known of which is Great Zimbabwe near Masvingo. At the apex of Shona spirituality is Mwari, the Great One in the Sky, variously known as Nyamatenga (He who lives in his own heaven), Muwanikwa (He who was found already in existence), Dzivaguru (The Great Pool) and Chikara (The Beast). Although Mwari is not a personal God and is not worshipped as such (apart from by members of a Mwari cult in the Matopos Hills and further afield), it is believed that he created the universe and is the source of all creation. Although Mwari is considered a disinterested philosophical principle by the majority of Shona his name is taken in various situations.

Outside of the Mwari cult, links with Mwari are established by the ancestral spirits of the Shona, who in turn establish relationships with the mortal Shona through the intercession of possessed spirit mediums, the svikiro and the mhondoro. The ancestral spirits represent the various interests of the Shona, who believe that they have the power to intervene in the interests of family and tribe, to shape destiny, dictate behaviour and affect physical phenomena such as weather patterns. The mhondoro, the spirit of royal ancestors, is honoured by those of the territory and will represent that territory's interests which are largely rural and include the fertility of the land, and the benevolence of natural phenomena such as weather. The mudzimu or family spirits are honoured by members of the patrilineal family. They are called upon to guarantee the continuous well-being of that patrilineal family, to protect its members from illness and witchcraft and when travelling. In addition to benevolent spirits, there are vengeful spirits such as the muroyi and the ngozi. The ngozi is the spirit of a murdered person who demands compensation from the patrilineal family of the murderer in the form of a woman who has to marry into the family of the murdered person. The muroyi or witch is either hereditary or voluntary. The hereditary muroyi or witch kills for no reason at all, the voluntary muroji for a human motive.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 4  

Back   Collection's Home   Art Collections   Kara Art Home