Bulletin Board: Zimstone Gallery’s Upcoming Reception

Zimstone Gallery, the local art gallery exhibiting sculptures from Zimbabwe, is holding a retrospective reception on October 19th, from 5 to 9 pm, showcasing nearly forty years of masterworks created in the Shona stone sculpture tradition. The Shona: Generations exhibit continues until November 19th.

For more information, check out Zimstone’s Shona exhibit or read more to see an abridged history of Shona sculpting. Zimstone Gallery is located at 4814 Rhode Island Avenue, in Hyattsville, and can be found on the web at www.zimstonegallery.com.


   At first glance, Shona stone sculpture reads as a highly thought provoking form of modern art.  In fact, over a several-century period starting around 1000 AD, Shona tribesmen, sophisticated in the use of simple, traditional hand tools to carve stone, built a large stone complex called the Great Zimbabwe. Carved stone by stone, The Great Zimbabwe is an impressive structure that still stands today. For reasons about which different and contradictory theories abound, the city complex was abandoned around 1600 AD and subsequently plundered and all but destroyed; the stone carvers fled to other parts of Southern Africa and the craft of stone carving became a lost art.
    In the mid-1950s, civil unrest in the country that had become Southern Rhodesia under British rule blossomed into a 15 year civil war that led in 1980 to formal independence for the new nation of Zimbabwe. In 1956, Frank McEwen, a former art critic and curator of the Musee Rodin in Paris, became the first director of the new National Gallery in Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia. The colonists expected McEwen to bring European art to this colonial outpost, instead he traveled around his new homeland and discovered a handful of Shona tribesmen working on stone sculpture in what came to be known as a “rediscovered” art form. Assisted by workshop schools that McEwen helped establish to promote this indigenous art, Shona sculpture soon developed into a substantial local art movement. Along the way, 100 Shona sculptures were featured at an exhibit at the Rodin Museum in Paris in 1971.
      For the modern Shona sculptors, much like their predecessors, an essential part of the sculpting process is enabling the spirit or spirits residing within the stone to be released into a more recognizable form. Thus, the sculptors, most of whom live in rural areas of the eastern portion of the country, search through the thousands of acres of stones for one that “speaks” to them. There are many different kinds of stone that the sculptors use, from cobalt, sandstone, the softest and easiest to carve, to springstone and the semi-precious verdite, the hardest and most difficult to carve. The range of stone, many of which are indigenous to Zimbabwe, includes opal stone, wonderstone, bloodstone, and serpentine, the most prevalent material and one that can be found in over 200 shades of green and brown. Then, using simple, traditional hatchets and chisels, they set to release the envisioned forms from the stones. The elaborate, yet time honored, process that can take many months to complete includes extensive sanding and rubbing, heating alongside an open wood fire, covering with many layers of wax, and polishing and buffing.
     Although the specific subjects of the individual sculptures are as varied and numerous as the actual number of sculptures themselves, there are several important themes that keep recurring. One of these is the family, since the family, both natural and extended, plays such an important part in the Shona culture. A second theme is homage to the various spirits that play such a central role. These include animals, leaves, and birds (for example, Chapungu, the Bateleur Eagle, and the title of the 2004 exhibit at Denver’s Botanic Gardens, is one of the most highly respected guardian spirits). Some of the sculptures feature ancestors, who impart knowledge, wisdom, and culture to those currently living, or tribal chieftains and elders, always held in high esteem. Another common theme is the activity of daily life—working, dancing, thinking, resting, or being at peace. Finally, some sculptures represent the transformation of animals or birds into human form or the reverse, since such metamorphosis is an important part of the Shona cultural cosmos. However, regardless of the theme or the specific subject, the content/meaning of a sculpture almost invariably derives from the individual artist’s sense of meaning that emanates from the stone itself.
     Over the past half-century, increasing numbers of Shona tribes people have become renown sculptors, including, recently, a number of women. The first few who began working in the 1940s and 1950s became known as the First Generation sculptors, including internationally recognized Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Henry Munyaradzi, Edward Chiwawa, and Fanizani Akuda. Their children and almost 100 of their age mates became the Second Generation Artists, including Richard Mteki and Brighton Sango. Since then, a Third Generation of artists, numbering several hundred, has also emerged, including Richard Mupumba, Victor Matafi, Sylvester Chitiyo and Danayi Nyudenga among a host of others.

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