Shona Sculptures in Zimbabwe

This article features a Shona sculptor in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, doing the only thing he knows - shaping local rocks into works of art. Read Carrie Hampton's article and learn how to transform a lump of stone into a desirable sculpture.

By Carrie Hampton

Carving it up in Zimbabwe

A relatively recent addition to Zimbabwe's cultural arts is the highly stylised Shona sculptures found in many international galleries. As a school of art its origins date back no further than the 1950's but this has been time enough to gain a global reputation not just as great African art, but great art in the broadest sense. Gods, spirits, ancestors and totems are popularly interpreted in modern-art stone or wood sculptures, whilst animals, birds and reptiles are often stylised to reveal their characters. Deep human emotion and relationships are also very powerfully portrayed in Shona carvings.Finding a sculptor at work and buying directly from him must surely be the most satisfying way to obtain a piece of art. One such artist is Maynard Maenzanise, whose outdoor studio is in a quiet corner near the Troutbeck Hotel in Zimbabwe's cool Eastern Highlands.Picking up a craggy lump of rock the size of a pumpkin, Maenzanise sees much more than just a piece of grey stone. He states confidently, 'Here is the front. I will use this natural indentation to form the sculpture.' Amidst flying stone he says positively, 'I see a baboon. Baboons always climb high to sleep in the trees where nothing can get to them. This baboon is climbing the mountain for his night's rest.'The indentation suddenly becomes the baboon's cheek. Maenzanise points out the mouth and nose and quickly chips in some eyes. In less than two minutes he has created the beginnings of a carving inspired by the natural shape of the rock and the nature which surrounds him.The Eastern Highlands are rich in a variety of stones perfect for carving. Maenzanise often uses the mid-hard Greenstone found only in Nyanga, or the vibrant green Vedite - a difficult hard stone but stunning in its beauty. Soapstone comes in a variety of gentle browns and blacks and is so soft and workable that novices learn their art on it using wooden tools. It is this stone that Maenzanise's forefathers used as writing tablets and which is generally used for mass market export. Black Serpentine on the other hand is bold in colour, hard in form and perfect for large abstract creations.

Cooking the stones

Maenzanise picks up the Baboon Climbing the Mountain from a pile of as yet unfinished pieces and studies it again. With a fine chisel he expertly adds detail then smoothes the baboon's long square nose with a rasp. It still appears a mottled pale grey but as he dips it in water and sands it down, its hidden dark colours and metallic flecks appear immediately. Sanded again and again, the sculpture is then placed near the fire to gain heat for 10-15 minutes.Some stones may be treated like bread where a little longer in the oven won't harm, others must be handled like a soufflé which may go pop if left for a minute too long. The warm sculpture is then iced like a cake with floor or shoe polish and buffed to a high gloss bringing out its natural colours and covering it with protective layer.A lady hovering around Maenzanise's sculptures finally stated, 'I have decided to take that beautiful green Impala.' Maenzanise replied 'No Madam,' his pause for breath causing her great anxiety, 'it is a female Kudu not an Impala,' her relief was evident.'Look she is scratching with her hind leg, but her big ears are always listening for danger. She would be happy on your veranda, or your garden is fine too.'  And so another sculpture finds its home and upon its empty pedestal is placed a dark shiny piece shaped like a baboon on a mountain. Copyright © Carrie Hampton. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.

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