Zimbabwe's art of stone

In midst of political upheaval, Shona sculptors struggle to get their work to Western market.

Courtesy of San Diego Natural History Museum
'spirit of good harvest': Artists create the smooth, glossy surfaces of their sculptures by heating the stone and then applying a substance such as beeswax.
Courtesy of San Diego Natural History Museum
Best Face forward: These hand-crafted stone carvings are part of an exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum called 'Spirits in Stone – Art & Animals of Africa.'
Courtesy of San Diego Natural History Museum

While the art on display at the San Diego Natural History Museum is from Zimbabwe, it's not made for Zimbabweans. The sculptures, known as "Shona art," are made purely for Westerners. But these days, the strife in Zimbabwe is making it difficult for the artists to sell their creations abroad.

The regime of President Robert Mugabe has made it more difficult for foreigners to visit the country, and many art dealers have been affected, says Anthony Ponter, curator of the museum's exhibit, "Spirits in Stone – Art & Animals of Africa." It is one of many exhibits in recent years highlighting art from the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe.

"Given the economic situation, shortages of fuel and transport, and declining tourism, it's much harder today than it used to be" for the artists to get their work to the West, Mr. Ponter says.

Although communication with Zimbabwe is difficult, it's clear that some of the nation's 1,800 to 3,000 sculptors have scattered to other countries, says Ponter, a northern California art dealer who grew up in Zimbabwe.

"Like all population groups, their lives have been impacted by the ongoing political troubles," he says.

The home country of their creators is now known as a place of violence and disorder. But the dozens of stone sculptures on display at a San Diego museum offer a glimpse into another side of Zimbabwe. There are touches of whimsy in many of the stylized, modern-looking sculptures, which portray African animals, spirits, and scenes of family life in stone smoothed to a glossy sheen.

Outside Zimbabwe, the Shona art is still on display and still for sale in many places, as it is at the San Diego museum. The exhibit lasts until Oct. 12.

Shona art is unusual in a number of ways. For one, it's all crafted out of stone and almost entirely formed without the use of power tools, Ponter says. Instead, the stone carvers rely on hand tools and sandpaper. They create the smooth, colorful, and glossy surfaces of the sculptures by heating the stone's surface and then applying a substance such as beeswax.

The use of stone itself is unique in Africa, although it has a history in Zimbabwe. Ancient peoples in the Zimbabwe region of Africa worked with stone as early as the 13th and 14th centuries, creating the magnificent stone structures of the Great Zimbabwe complex that gave the country its name.

Finally, Shona art serves no special purpose, unlike much of African art – such as masks – which is used in spiritual ceremonies. The Shona artists "carve for the sheer joy of it," says Ponter's wife, Laura. The Shona sculptures are often abstract and stylized; they are so contemporary that they're frequently displayed in modern-art museums.

The artists have specifically made the sculptures for foreigners since the form came into being in the 1960s, says Bill Dewey, an associate professor of African art history at the University of Tennessee.

"That's not unusual in Africa," he says. "In a time of global communication, much of the art production is done for foreign markets. Not all – there certainly are a number of things of a more traditional nature that are for religious purposes. But almost everywhere in Africa, much of the art is being made for outsiders."

Some critics have attacked Shona art as not being genuine because Zimbabweans developed it with the assistance of Westerners. But Ponter considers that opinion to be a form of prejudice and says he takes special care to limit Western influence.

When he and his wife make visits to artists, "we buy everything, every piece that we see," instead of buying just a few that artists would then copy en masse for future buyers, he says. "That way they can stay true to what they want to carve."

Letwin Mugavasi, a sculptor and member of the Shona tribe, says she finds a sense of pride and accomplishment in her art, which features women and children. "I love my work so much," she says by phone from Zimbabwe. "I am so dedicated when I'm doing it. I feel like I'm creating something nobody has ever done. That makes me feel very good, doing something that people will enjoy."

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