Zimbabwean Stone Sculptures

The Zimbabwean stone sculpture is a singular phenomenon in the context of African Art. A similar type of art it has not met in any other African country. This art is also singular in that it practically from scratch, ie from any tradition was born and after about thirty years ago to dissolve into the anonymity of mass production for the market again began folklore. Today it is probably right to say that it is no longer the art direction is. There were the special circumstances of the history of the country who have contributed to the rise and decline. In the50s of last century, Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known, to the stage of the comparatively liberal multiracial experiment, at least in cultural terms.

In the capital Harare, a university and a National Gallery were established. The first director of the new National Gallery was the Briton Frank McEwen. His role in the development of the “new direction” cannot be overestimated. He had learned in the thirties in Paris, which impulses from the ethnic African art to modern European painting and sculpture emanated. His interest was to go to the roots themselves, seek out the creative powers of Africa and promote the positive atmosphere in Rhodesia, the development of domestic, as he thought unadulterated art.

It’s not to say so, that it has no plastic in front on the floor, where traditions of Zimbabwe. But the view of African art history of the last two thousand years shows that entire southern Africa compared with West and Central Africa was poor in artefacts. He was settled too thin. It lacked the great kingdom, the power of the ritual art of the past represented in the rule. Only in Great Zimbabwe, in the realm of Monomutapa, there had been cult figures made of a stone eagle. But their sculptural tradition has long gone down with the Empire. That these figures are cited in the context of contemporary stone sculpture, again and again, has to do with the need of the new government to strengthen the cultural self-esteem of the nation. Above all, the wrong job to do on the tradition with the marketing needs of the gallery. The “typically African” sells better.

Life-Size fighting Warriors carved from Cobalt Stone (by Alibaba.com)

Significantly stimulated and encouraged by McEwen developed in the mid-sixties, a scene of young talented African Stone Sculpture. Among the first Yoram Mariga, John Takawira, Henry Munyaradzi, Nicholas and Joseph Mukomberanwa NdandarikaThey were all later, the leaders of the new movement. McEwen asked the young artists to make art for art’s sake and to be inspired by their inner images and the myths of her people, the Shona. The concept of the Shona Sculpture was born. In 1965 the first work was shown abroad. 1968, works were shown in an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern ArtThe special exhibition at the Musée Rodin in Paris was international recognition. In their motives, these early works were quite African. In anthropomorphic figures, they often symbolized the belief in the original unity of man and animal. It played an important mythical eagle and monkey role. In its style, these works were often “archaic” or “primitive” and recalled the art of the Aztecs, Mayas and Eskimos. However, it would be wrong to speak of a unified style.

Zimbabwean Stone Sculptures (by Pieter Swillens)

Instead, over the years developed the important artists own personal styles. Henry Munyaradzis minimalist design of the human head reminiscent of Paul Klee. Nicholas Mukomberanwas work seemed influenced by Cubism. When John Takawira could see a resolution expressive of the contour. Without a doubt, the artists were exposed to Western influences. The National Gallery has shown works by Picasso and Henry Moore and other important artists of European modernism, but also ethnic African art. It is pointless to argue about whether the sculptures, which at that time were, were typically African or not. Anyway, they were not traditional in the strict sense, nor really modern. They were something special, a synthesis, an experiment, just the Zimbabwean stone sculpture.

Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture Abstract (from InsideHalton.com)

When Frank McEwen was the genuine inspiration from the wealth of collective unconscious, he refrained from the artist. Instead, he shielded them against the temptations was already emerging from the commercialization, poor work rejected as “airport art” (they were actually destroyed) and shifted his Workshop School to the country. In 1965 the white settler colony of Southern Rhodesia declared its unilateral independence from the British crown. The international sanctions imposed against the country then, not only economically isolated Southern Rhodesia but also culturally. But should it prove necessary for the new art as a blessing? It allowed the young artists the chance of a slow maturation on the right track. The growing reputation of the “Shona Sculpture” and the beginnings of interest from collectors offered the best sculptors of a sufficient material basis in order to establish themselves as professional artists living not only for their art but for them too.

Which matured at the time, could be harvested after the country gained independence in 1980. The eighties were the culmination of the movement but also the beginning of its decline. Numerous exhibitions abroad made known its most important representatives and encouraged them to experiment and to choose for their work larger size. Surfaces were trimmed raw. With new tools, especially harder chisels could be harder stones such as Spring Stone, lepidolite or Verdite editing and design easier breakthroughs. Young artists were joined to the movement. had studied Tapfuma Gutsa of Art in London, working in mixed media and often combined in his elegant works of stone and wood. Brighton Sango stone sculptures were abstract. They remembered nothing more in Africa. The term “Shona Sculpture” was unpopular with art connoisseurs as well as some artists. It almost seemed as if the Zimbabwean sculpture is alive enough to develop.

“The five-headed family” (Pinterest)

But after independence, also uses the problems. It was becoming obvious that the Zimbabwean stone sculpture was neither traditional nor typical African and not anchored in the country. She had neither public nor critical feedback from the local press. Even the wealthy new elite was not interested in that which spawned their most important artistic representatives abroad. The major annual exhibitions of the National Gallery were called but National Heritage Exhibition, but it lacked the artistic traditions, which were invoked in the name of the new nation. The quality of the pieces took off year after year, what the curators obviously did not prevent, to increase the quantity of the exhibits. Just as the market works. In the capital, were settling down numerous galleries, offering everything that increased the tastes of the tourists, whose numbers from year to year, in line. Because prices and sales were always started more young Zimbabweans who had no talent to copy what would sell. The result was a regrettable decline in quality, while damage to the reputation of the whole movement. In the nineties, this trend continued to the airport art. With the ominous decline of the economy, the plight of the African population grew in the cities as well as in the country. Those who did not work trying to get in the informal sector to stay afloat. On the way, flooding the mass-produced pieces that were at best craftsmen, generally cheaper but kitsch, the market and undermined completely, which had developed by then.

Today, a review is possible on the Zimbabwean sculpture. The leading artists of the early years nearly all have died. A marked generation of younger artists whose work is of artistic quality and creativity would be, could not grow under the described circumstances. The time was too short and the movement is too small, as this could have caused what constitutes generally the art of a country: continuity and change, individuality, while many references to the cultural and social environment. Too weak, the response in our own society, and was too much demand from commercial interests and tourism needs to be determined. The Zimbabwean situation has equalized in this respect, the other African countries.

More valuable now seem in retrospect, the work of the most important representative of the early period. Their quality has moved the name of Zimbabwean stone sculpture in the world in the first place. The originality and uniqueness of artists such as Nicolas Mukomberanwa, John and Henry Munyaradzi Takawira are undisputed, even if their work is based on a syncretism, on an ambivalent fusion of African tradition and European modernity, which gives the impression both of the familiar as the stranger. Today, as the movement has lost almost all their contours, such works usually come only from private collections on the market.

The African Mbira/Kalimba

The mbira has been an important instrument in sub-Saharan Africa and has played a part in African culture for 800 years. Although it can be a solo instrument, it is more commonly used as an accompaniment to singers, musicians and dancers. It is not uncommon for the native African instruments to allow solo harmonization, but typically, harmony in African music serves as a variation to the theme being performed. Many versions of the mbira exist with tribes creating distinctive performance styles and names for the instrument. They vary widely in appearance, size, materials, and tuning from the smallest 6-note models of the Kalahari Bushmen to the sophisticated 33-note instrument found in Zimbabwe (intro photo showing a traditional Mbira relic from northern Namibia, taken by Manfred Werner).

The name mbira is known throughout much of Africa, but regionally, the name mbira is more commonly used in Zimbabwe, while the name Kalimba is used in Kenya, the name ikembe is used in Rhuanda, and the name “likembe” is used in the Congo, while other names are bit less common such as sanza, sansa, marimba, marimbula, there are more generic names of finger harp, gourd piano, and thumb piano that are often used in the west. The mbira is also known as the thumb piano because one’s thumbs are used to pluck (or more accurately depress and release) the metal strips (tongues or lamellas) that sound particular notes. It is common for two mbiras to play together where one covers the melodic accompaniment of the singer while the other plays the bass line (or bourdon). Some mbiras have few tongues and others have many. Some of the more sophisticated instruments have two sets of tongues for one performer to play melody and harmony, or melody and bass line on the same instrument. In the 1920s, Hugh Tracey came from England to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to help his older brother run a tobacco farm. He became fascinated by the local music culture and created the Kalimba, a version of the mbira. Introduced by Tracy in the early 1960s, Kalimba was the registered trademark for his diatonic instrument that soon became popular around the world.

Above a selection of beautiful Mbira Instruments (taken from Wikipedia)

The word kalimba literally means little music. It was well suited for Western music and made it easy for the performer to play harmony using both thumbs. Today, versions of this African instrument can be found in most parts of the world, with wide use in parts of Asia, the Middle East, North and South America. Much of this popularity is due to the work of Hugh Tracy, but the simplicity of the instrument’s design and construction and the relative ease by which one can learn to play it has added to its wide acceptance throughout the world.

+ Physical Description:

The basic mbira is a simple soundboard or sound box with wooden (typically cane) or metal keys or tongues (called lamellas) attached on the top. The sound box is typically made from a calabash (gourd) or wood, and often the metal keys (tongues) were made from old spoon handles, bicycle spokes or spring wire that were cut and hammered to the desired shape. The keys (tongues) are plucked with the thumbs, or with combinations of thumbs and fingers. The keys usually consist of 6 to 33 metal keys (tongues) mounted across two bars (or wooden dowels) at one end attached to the sound box with another wooden dowel holding them in place. The bar closest to the sound hole serves as a bridge, the other to provide a means for the dowel to hold the keys (tongues) in place. The free ends of the keys (tongues) are positioned at different lengths to produce the variety of pitches. The length of the vibrating end of the keys (tongues) determines the pitch (a shorter key or tongue produces a higher pitch, and a longer key or tongue produces a lower pitch). Many of the mbiras with sound boxes have holes drilled in the sides of the sound box. When the instrument is held in both hands with the thumbs plucking the tongues, the index fingers on each side can cover and uncover these side holes to change the resonance and can provide a tremolo effect. The mbira often has several rows of keys (tongues) positioned like multiple manuals (or rows of keys) on a keyboard. The lower manual (typically longer tongues and lower pitched notes) often represent the men’s voices, while the upper manual (typically shorter tongues with higher pitched notes) represent the young men’s voices, or are split with one side of the upper manual representing the young men’s voices and the other representing the women’s voices. The tuning and arrangement of the tongues are varied.

Various modern Mbira’s (Kalimbas) – from Kalimba Magic

     + Sound Properties:

The mbira produces a haunting, fluid percussive sound that is considered tranquil and enchanting. Since you can play either simultaneously or alternate between both thumbs, harmonic and rhythmic effects are possible. An important feature of mbira music is its cyclical nature, with each new repetition of a theme varying slightly from the last and incorporate numerous interwoven melodies, with contrasting and syncopated rhythms. Mbira music lends itself to rhythmic and melodic diversity and entails a great deal of improvisation, qualities common to African traditional music. The compositions usually consist of a main melodic part (kushaura), and a secondary melodic part (kutsinhira). Special attention should be paid to the combination of quadruple (4/4) and triple 3/4 meters within the rhythmic structure of the music. Most compositions can be thought of as a sequence of four 12-beat phrases. Those 12 beats can be divided into three groups of four or four groups of three. While the Mbira can be an effective solo instrument, it is rarely found by itself at traditional Shona religious ceremonies. It is ordinarily accompanied by hosho players, handclapping, and singing. The persistent array of complex rhythms and variations of the melodies provides a rich source of sounds that captivates listeners. Many effects can be employed by plucking up or down on the keys (tongues). The sound can also be altered by wrapping the tongues with wire or adding a mirliton device. This adds an additional buzzing or humming character to the sound of the instrument which is an important sound in many of the tribal cultures. Often, snail shells or metal bottle caps are often attached to the soundboard or the sound box to create or enhance the rich buzzing sound. The buzzing is thought to clear the mind and allow the listener to focus totally on the music. These buzzing effects are not commonly used on the diatonic versions of the mbira or outside of the African tribal cultures. Most recordings do not include these effects as they tend to favour the pure sounds of the instrument. Mbira tunings are numerous, and usage depends on personal preference. Mbira players usually settle on a particular tuning and use it consistently. Some of the more common Mbira tunings are Nyamaropa (click for YouTube Video), Gandanga Dongonda, Gandanga (or Mavembe), Nyuchi, Dambatsoko, Katsanzaira, Mande, Nemakonde, Nyamaropa Dongonda, Samsengere, and Saungweme (below a short YouTube clip of an ethnic family in Zimbabwe playing multiple Mbira’s).

   + Links:

• Build your own Mbira (Kalimba) instructions with photos

• Build your own electrical Mbira (Kalimba) instructions with photos

• Build your own Mbira (Kalimba) instructions with photos (pdf. document – 1 page)

• Hugh Tracey collection of 22 various african musical downloads including various african traditional musical Instruments (going back up to the year 1952)


Brandberg Mountain and Rock Paintings

Brandberg White Lady

Brandberg Mountain and Rock Paintings

The Brandberg is a spiritual site of great significance to the San (Bushman) tribes. The main tourist attraction is The White Lady rock painting, located on a rock face with other art work, under a small rock overhang, in the Tsisab Ravine at the foot of the mountain. The ravine contains more than 1 000 rock shelters, as well as more than 45 000 rock paintings.

To reach The White Lady it is necessary to hike for about 40 minutes over rough terrain, along the ancient watercourses threading through the mountain.

The higher elevations of the mountain contain hundreds of further rock paintings, most of which have been painstakingly documented by Harald Pager, who made tens of thousands of hand copies. Pager’s work was posthumously published by the Heinrich Bart Institute, in the six volume series “Rock Paintings of the Upper Brandberg” edited by Tilman Lenssen-Erz. (I. Amis Gorge, II. Hungorob Gorge, III. Southern Gorges (Ga’aseb & Orabes), IV. Umuab & Karoab Gorges, V. Naib (A)and the Northwest, VI. Naib (B), Circus & Dom Gorges. Volume VII. Numas Gorge is unlikely to be published due to discontinued funding.)

(Learn more on Wikipedia)