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.
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 Ndandarika. They 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 Art. The 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.
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.
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.
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.