Modern Sculptures from Zimbabwe

by Herbert E. Roese © July 12th, 2000

Illustrations: [Fig.1] [Fig.2] [Fig.3] [Fig.4] [bibliography]

In my first paper I talked about examples of early, nameless African sculptures by unknown artists (‘The Indigenous Sculptural Arts of South Africa’). In my second paper I discussed identifiable African sculptures of the 19th century whose makers were also unknown, although with some exceptions (‘Identifying African Sculpture’). However, like art anywhere, African sculpture too is a living art form and artists creating modern sculptures have made much progress. They are becoming ever better known, not just in Africa but in Europe and America. In fact, these new works of art are already collected as much as those of previous centuries.

Stone is a very old medium for artistic expression in Africa. Chapungu Sculpture Park near Harare is a place where much is done nowadays to promote its sculpting. The majority of people in that country are the Shona, a people with a history that reaches back into the first millenium. The best known era of this history was that of Great Zimbabwe. It represents an epoch of considerable economical and cultural achievement, lastingly represented by the ancient ruins of the same name. Gold had been the mainstay of Great Zimbabwe’s trade, but also copper and iron, both of which were worked. The 13th & 14th centuries appear to have been a time when this culture experienced its greatest prosperity.

It is conceivable that modern Shona sculpting in stone has its antecedents in this era. Some of the earliest archeological finds in Great Zimbabwe were of soapstone carved into flat bowls. Their sides were decorated with friezes depicting long horned cattle, zebras or baboons. And then there were the famous monoliths, surmounted by carved, stylized birds . There is no reason why they should not be the foundation on which the new 20th century movement of Shona stone sculpting was founded in 1970 (see BALA, 1999). It is thought that the monoliths "represent a sculptural style in the process of formation. It had no apparent antecedents and no issue" (Garlake, 1978:78) – until the 20th century and independence from colonial rule. Great Zimbabwe’s fortunes declined in the late 15th century, an event which happened to coincide with the first appearance of Europeans. With it declined its artistic heritage. When it re-emerged the surprise was universal because it was "Unexpected and extraordinary…that the Shona people found within themselves an inner vocation for plastic sculpture, despite the absence of a tradition in this field" (Mor, 1998:7).

Figures 1 to 3 are examples of the Shona’s re-emerging sculptural skills. They are by two different artists, Edmore SANGO (born 1958) and his pupil Tinashe MAKAZA (born 1972). The medium of these figures is Serpentine, a product of geological metamorphism. It is formed from Olivine (a green mineral) and other magnesium-rich silicates involving the addition of water. The result is a rock composed of a tough network of minute crystals. Massive Serpentine is mottled or variegated in shades of green and brown and was already used as ornamental stone in a number of early cultures.

E. Sango’s work is marked by abstract imagery. Figure 1, "Remembering", is a good example. However, it differs from other works by him in one respect, namely that the artist introduced some important rounded lines which are generally missing in his otherwise cubist forms. Being as many of these works were created in the aftermath of the struggle for independence, it is likely that this sculpture incorporates a political message and a reference to the suffering of those involved in it.

1. [BACK]

T. Makaza’s two sculptures are of two quite different styles. Figure 2, "Beggar", is straight-lined, angular and earthbound and could equally be interpreted as an African woman grinding grain. It’s most fascinating feature, however, is the left side view which is reminiscent of a sitting bird, its wings tucked in. Perhaps unintentionally, from this angle the piece seems to hark back to the bird sculptures of Great Zimbabwe.

2a. 2b. 2c. [BACK]

Figure 3, "Crying Boy", is totally curved and with its pierced body appears particularly spacial. It could be interpreted as symbolizing an infant in its foetal position inside a womb. Makaza has created here a very sensitive and evocative sculpture.

3a. 3b. 3c. [BACK]

Tonderai Mashaya is another young Zimbabwean sculptor who is making an impression amongst his fellow artists at Chapungu. Born in 1977 and educated at Seke High School Harare, he has been following his vocation since 1995. Five years later he joined Chapungu Sculpture Park as an artist in residence. The piece shown here (4a&4b)was one of his first created during that year.

4a. 4b. [BACK]

Figure 4, "Wisdom", too is very curved and with its pierced body it too appears particularly spacial. The sculptor also created a very sensitive and evocative sculpture.

Although there have been important exhibitions of Chapungu sculptures in Paris, Berlin, London and Cape Town, which have engendered a number of excellent catalogues, extended reading of the available literature (see list below) is still the best method to familiarize oneself with the subject:

Also digitally published by

Bala, Iwan (1999) - 'A Modern Tradition? stone sculptures in Zimbabwe', in PLANET, Vol.132, pp.18-25.

Bent, J.T. (1896) – The ruined Cities of Mashonaland, publ. in London.

Garlake, P. (1987) – The Kingdoms of Africa, publisher Elsevier-Phaidon, Oxford.

Garlake, P. (1973) – Great Zimbabwe, London (Excavation Report)

Gillon, W. (1984) – A short History of African Art, publisher Viking, New York (chapter 15, Great Zimbabwe, pp.341-345.)

Hall, M. (1905) – Great Zimbabwe, publ. in London.

Huffman, T.N. (1985) – ‘The Soap-Stone Birds from Great Zimbabwe’, in African Arts, Vol.18/3, pp.68-73.

Mor, F. (1987) – Shona Sculpture, publisher Jongwe, Harare.

Mor, F. (1998) – ‘The Evolution of Shona Sculpture’, in Chapungu Vol.5 No.1 , pp.7-11. (The Quarterly Newsletter of Ch.Sc.Park).

Sultan, O. (1992) – Life in Stone, publisher Baobab Books, Harare.

Summers, R. (1963) – Zimbabwe: a Rhodesian Mystery, publ. in Cape Town

Winter-Irving, C. (1991) – Stone Sculpture in Zimbabwe, publisher Roblaw, Harare .

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