Zimbabwe Stone Sculpture: a retrospective 1954 – 2004.

Book Review:

Compiled by Doreen Sibanda.

Published by Weaver Press. Harare. Zimbabwe.

Distributed in UK by African Book Collective

                                   The Jam Factory

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                                   Oxford.  OX1 1HU


Several commentators have pointed out that in Zimbabwe often, if not always, history is presented as a linear progression from low to high, darkness to light, poor to good. In fact history as a narrative rarely moves in such a way. Doreen Sibanda has attempted to compile a retrospective of Zimbabwe stone sculpture from 1957 to 2004. She says in the foreword, ‘the purpose is to allow the reader to see the movement’s chronological development through the distinguishing features that rendered the sculpture to be largely unique in conception. By grouping the works in decades, the spirit of each decade becomes more evident. The story of its emergence has been told repeatedly. The missionaries were looking for religious iconography that was relevant to Africans and appealed to an African aesthetic. Europeans [here read Frank McEwan and others] were looking for the African ‘collective unconscious’ that could be expressed artistically, which was not ‘learned’ from Europe. There were others, for economic, political or social reasons were interested in supporting African artistic expression. So, this was more like a gathering of different strands. This was forty to fifty years after we had been taken out of our history, as Amilcar Cabral would say, culturally, economically and politically. The anti-colonial struggle was reaching its peak. There was a witches brew just trying to find a form to express itself, a form that expressed Kahari’s old world and the new. People were trying to express themselves artistically [Joram Mariga and others], with or without patrons. What they created was the expression of their time. It was no more ‘primitive’ than the ANC (Southern Rhodesia) or Reuben Jamela’s African Voice was ‘primitive’. Although stone carving had no recent history in Zimbabwe, and it was being learnt as a new form, much of western culture was new as well. There was a greater divide then between what was seen as ‘European’ and ‘African’ than today. So stone sculpture movement, as it came to be, was a condensation of many different forces finding expression.


This slim book is arranged so that all the essays are at the beginning, followed by photographs of sculptures arranged by decade. The first artists represented began sculpting in the 1950s. However, none of the figures shown are from this period. Instead examples of their style are shown, often from a different period. Joram Mariga is represented by a figure called ‘Small seated woman’ [1963]. This is well-formed figure with a large head that is turned away, while the rest of the figure is frontal but body held tightly, trying to make herself small. The legs are pressed together and arms bracing the body together, with breasts erect. Her head appears disproportionately large. She is embarrassed. It is quite unmistakable that this figure is communicating with the viewer. Boira Mteki ‘head’ and Nicolas Mkomberanwa’s ‘head’ face each other across the page, showing the sharply different styles. Quite early on [both 1963] their individual interpretations were clear. The progression is represented to as recent as 2004, with many other artist, young and old, men and women, formally trained or not all adding their bit, and there have been great changes in form and style over fifty years. Zimbabwean Stone sculpture has made its mark on the Zimbabwean psyche and on the art market. However, with the praise that Zimbabwean stone sculptors have been lavished, one would hope to see the impact the artists have had at home and abroad. Sadly, this is lacking from the book.


Zimbabwean stone sculpture is collected and marketed world wide, but its influence is not visible. Some sculptors are part of the diaspora too. What is visible in the retrospective is that the outside influence is stronger than ever. Many of the original artists had little formal training; they had little in the way of western ideation about art and aesthetics. With later artists, this influence increased. In addition, the founding artists did not articulate their artistic concepts and ideas sufficiently or they were not taken seriously for they are lacking in any ‘art criticism’ of their work, their words and language are separated from their work. This absence then gets filled with words from other people or other languages describing their work as ‘anthropomrphic’ and exotic.  The recent work, for example, has become more abstract and varied, is named in English and described in English. Is it conceived in English? Many of the people who have participated in the stone sculpture movement have connections to other cultures, such as Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and Anglo-Saxon. Whether stone sculpture in Zimbabwe had any reverberations in those countries is not discussed. This is sad because it makes stone sculpture in Zimbabwe appear unique and local, just as before it was claimed to be ‘Shona’ sculpture. West and Central African art had a profound influence on Western art before and African art can continue to do so in the future. Zimbabwean art should be there as well.



Nov 1, 2005.


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