by ANDREW MAMBONDIYANI
WHEN David Chimuka, a veteran sculptor in Zimbabwe’s eastern border city of Mutare, ventured into stone carving about four decades ago, he used to conceal his love of sculpture from his friends.
Back then, Chimuka says, there was a lot of stigma attached to stone sculpture or any other work related to art.
In many parts of Zimbabwe, a lot of people viewed sculptors as vagabonds and Chimuka tried to avoid this shame.
“Stone sculptors faced a lot of stigma back then. I used to hide from my friends while working on my stones,” says Chimuka with a chuckle.
But Chimuka’s passion for stone sculpture — an art steeped in age-old Zimbabwean culture— later morphed into a thriving business venture.
And according to experts, stone sculpture in Zimbabwe often referred to as “Shona sculpture movement” can be traced back the mid-1900s.
The name ‘Shona sculpture’ is derived from the Shona tribe, one of the major indigenous groups of people in Zimbabwe.
In a research on the history of stone sculpture in Zimbabwe, George P. Landow, professor of English and Art History, Brown University, USA revealed that sculpture which is now revered in Europe, America and Australia has its roots in the ancient traditions and soapstone sculptures available since the 1950s.
Landow wrote that the late renowned international artist, Frank McEwen was hired by colonial authorities in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe to introduce European high art into the then National Gallery of Rhodesia. Mcwen then encouraged local people to try their hand in art at the same time he introduced European painting on canvas.
“When McEwen arrived [in Rhodesia] people were already producing stone work for sale to tourists — realistic interpretations of the wildlife— in the main produced in soft soapstone,” Landow wrote.
And Tom Blomefield, a tobacco farmer who founded Tengenenge— an open-air gallery in Zimbabwe’s Guruve area— is also credited for promoting and popularising local stone carving back in the 1960s.
According to Landow, Blomefield encouraged his farm workers to venture into stone sculpture after income from tobacco farming dwindled due to international sanctions imposed on Rhodesia during that time.
Interestingly, Blomefield had no artistic training and very little knowledge of the arts, according to Landow but he saw the natural creative potential of local people.
And today Tengenenge has more than 11 000 sculptures on display with over 80 sculptors.
“I don’t regret choosing stone carving as a business,” Chimuka says. “I’m utilising my talent to make a living”.
At his arts and crafts centre tucked on the outskirts of Mutare central business district, Chimuka is always surrounded by various shiny and dull looking artefacts—animals, birds and human and abstract figures— carved from a variety of stones.
Chimuka’s stone sculptures are priced from as low as US$5 to as high as US$500 a piece depending on the size of the artwork.
But still, most of these sculptures remain pricey for the Zimbabwean market and Chimuka says he targets international tourists and the export markets.
“Tourists sustain our business,” he says.
Mutare, just like other parts of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands attracts tourists from various parts of the world. And most these tourists, have for years sustained this region’s stone carving business.
However, as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic bite deeper, many artists like Chimuka have to rethink their business models to survive.
Some stone sculptors and other artists have turned to gold panning—mostly illegally— while others have turned to small scale or back yard farming to sustain their families.
“I have turned into other small business ventures. I’m now growing vegetables, fruits and maize to supplement my income. Income from sculpture has dried up as tourists are not flying into the country. It’s not easy,” he says.
And Bernard Marira, a versatile and talented artist based in Penhalonga, a small mining community a few kilometres north of the city of Mutare says sculpture in Zimbabwe has evolved greatly and many people are now making a living out of this creativity.
“There is great improvement in sculpture because a lot of people decided to do sculpture as a way of earning a living as a result of harsh economic conditions in Zimbabwe,” says Marira who’s popularly known in the Zimbabwe’s art circles as L.bernard.
Zimbabwe has experienced a major economic decline in the past years and most of the industries have closed down forcing many people to find other means of livelihoods such as sculpture.
“This increase in the number of people doing sculpture has resulted stiff competition and hence improvement in creativity,” he says.
But sculptures from Zimbabwe remain in demand particularly in countries in the West.
“Most of the western people love Zimbabwean sculpture because of our creativity and the message or theme of these sculptures,” he says.
However, Marira was quick to add that the coming of COVID-19 has drastically affected his art business.
“Since the COVID- 19 restrictions, l have not sold even a single piece of art work. Tourists are the major buyers of art work hence no tourists no business for me. But still the family needs to feed despite this problem,” he says.
To offset the current losses, Marira has also ventured into other menial jobs and small businesses in the interim.
“I have to find some part time work to do; like gold panning which most of the artists have rushed to,” he says.
However, despite the setbacks, stone sculpture continues to play an important role in Zimbabwe’s economic and cultural development.
According to the ZimTrade quoting the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency Zimbabwe’s exports of original sculptures and statuary products averaged above US$2.5 million between 2012 and 2015.
“The export figures for Zimbabwe are probably not reflective of the true value of the products. It is likely that a lot more products are being exported informally by traders and tourists hence they are not being recorded,” the ZimTrade says.
The ZimTrade also reveals that many artists and sculptors could be selling their products at very low prices as they might not be very conversant with the international market value and trends.
However, David Mutambirwa, executive director and founder of Mhakwe Heritage foundation Trust (MHFT) agrees that there is a hidden economic history surrounding Zimbabwe’s cultural and touristy stone sculptures.
“Communities can derive a livelihood through selling artefacts to domestic and international tourists,” Mutambirwa says.
Mutambirwa says tourist attraction centres such as Tengenenge in Mashonaland Central, Victoria Falls, Great Zimbabwe, Chimanimani and Nyanga have provided much needed foreign currency through the selling sculptures, curios, pottery, embroidery and other art products.
“Art symbolises where we came from, who we are, our values and beliefs. The stone culture is used to express social life such as emotions, feelings, experiences and hope. It can also be a simple or for ornamental purposes,” he says.
Mhakwe Heritage foundation Trust is an organisation which is into research and documentation of heritage and culture preservation, among other things.
“Early men would engrave on the stones depicting what they encountered, like rock paintings, Zimbabwe bird at Great Zimbabwe ruins, Matopos and many sacred places dotted in Zimbabwe and Africa at large,” he says.
And Chimuka remains optimistic that despite the turbulence in the industry, stone sculptor will survive for generations to come.
“Nothing will kill stone sculpture in our country. It’s our culture and heritage,” Chimuka says.