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The Shona Stone Sculpture of Zimbabwe

August 10, 2010

Satrap by Herbert Freeman

If you type Shona stone sculpture into a search engine you will get a result of several thousand, many of which will be of galleries and other outlets offering the work of dozens if not hundreds of men and women creating in stone in Zimbabwe.  Stone sculpture has become an important part of Zimbabwe’s cultural identity and a source of foreign currency in a country suffering from hyperinflation and economic dislocation.  Oddly enough, other than carvings in soapstone for tourist souvenirs, there was no tradition of stone carving in the country prior to the late 1950’s.

In some ways the story is similar to the Australian Western Desert Art Movement where something from the outside triggers an explosion of creativity leading to a major art movement.  In the Australian instance it was a children’s teacher giving some elders polymer acrylic paint along with the concept of creating something permanent instead of temporary like the body painting and sand art that was part of their culture.  In this African case it also started with a man introducing a group of men to the idea of painting on canvas.

Frank McEwen was hired to be the founding director of the National Gallery of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  He was disappointed with the state of the local arts scene among the white colonialists which he found barely existent.  He started an arts workshop for the native African employees of the museum in the museum basement where he introduced them to easel painting.  This went on for a couple of years when somehow the attention shifted to sculpture and became an idee fixe among the men in the workshop.  Instead of carving wood or soft soapstone they taught themselves how to sculpt various local hard stones.

McEwen encouraged these men and reminded them to be true to their own artistic visions.  By the early 1970’s several major international exhibits in Europe and North America confirmed the reputation of the art movement which was called the Shona Art Movement after the most prominent ethnic group in Zimbabwe.

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