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Art of Zimbabwe: Shona Sculpture

Art of Zimbabwe: Shona Sculpture

Shona sculpture is the name given to a modern movement of stone carved sculpture created in Zimbabwe. It gets its name from the ‘Shona’ tribe of people (actually a mixture of many similar tribes with closely related language and culture) who are the largest in Zimbabwe. The country itself gets its name thanks to the Shona people’s long artisanal tradition of stone working, meaning “house of stone”. The traditional stone carving of the Shona people was never particularly wide-spread or as culturally significant as it is in modern times however. Stone work was primarily done for construction or decoration, with one such key example being the Great Zimbabwe Settlement. This was a sixty acre city which was constructed from carved stone, and housed up to 18,000 people at its height. Now a world heritage site, this 11th – 15th century city demonstrates the historic skill and innovation of the Shona tribe.

The Shona relationship with the ground and the stone it provided in abundance was linked closely to their spiritual and cultural practices. As a result, it was historically the case that such works were not exported, nor created as artistic works to be enjoyed in such a way. Modern Shona sculpture is an evolution of this tradition, which begun in the mid 1900’s as an emerging artistic movement. The Shona peoples relationship and instinct to use this material creatively in a way that hadn’t been done before in the area led to a huge growth in the production and appreciation of such works. In particular, the involvement of Frank McEwen, and English artist, teacher and museum work was instrumental in bringing this burgeoning movement to international attention. His efforts led to the founding of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and his enthusiasm to help give the Shona people a voice through their art lead to the first generation of renowned Shona artists gaining international attention. Works by artists such as Bernard Matemera, Henry Munyaradzi, and Sylvester Mubayi now sell for upwards of six figures, and their works are coveted and highly respected.

The Shona art movement is relatively young, and is still evolving and growing. The refreshing design and traditional approach of Shona sculptors make their works popular and attractive to collectors and art lovers the world over. The uniqueness of the subject, style and material of these pieces means that their popularity and desirability is certain to continue growing as more of the world becomes aware of the talent and skill of these artists.

Types of Stone used in Shona Sculpture

Much of the stone used in Shona sculpture belongs to the Serpentine family. This type of sedimentary, metamorphic stone can be found in a wide variety of colours, from deep green-blacks to rarer and brighter semi-precious types. It is an abundant material in Zimbabwe, with much of the stone coming from the countries “Great Dyke”. This geological formation which stretches for hundreds of kilometers is an exceptionally mineral rich vein where Serpentine that was formed millions of years ago is brought to the surface. Much of these stones are mined in small, open cast natural quarries by the artists or locals themselves. This process has little ecological impact, and provides an important source of income for communities. The increasing popularity of Shona art and its usage of this material has led to prosperity for the communities that have embraced it.

Opal Stone

Opal stone is a relatively soft, milky-light-green (although sometimes with a brown undertone) serpentine with a fine, smooth texture and near translucent surface. It is often specked with red, orange or blue and the overall appearance can be smooth or mottled.

Opal stone is popular with sculptors, as it’s not as hard as springstone but still polishes to a high finish- revealing rich colour and beautiful texture.

Rating on Mohs hardness scale (with 1 being as soft as talc and 10 being as hard as diamond): 5.0-5.5.

Shona Sculpture - Winged Seed Pod, Arei Mar, Opalstone

Springstone

Springstone is one of the hardest of the shona stones, which, along with its softer brown outer layer, make it very popular with sculptors. Although found in several areas, springstone is mined in Guruve, by hand. It is a dark stone and, due to its density, can be polished up to a high shine.

The dark colour of the stone can make for a great contrast when displayed in a light environment, and gives pieces of this material a great weight and presence. Rating on Mohs hardness scale: 5.5.

Shona Sculpture - The Three Faces, Martin Mantimura, Springstone

Cobalt Stone

Cobalt stone can be purple or green, with either yellow and white or brown/orange markings. It is brittle and relatively rare making it quite a challenging stone to work with.

For those sculptors who have the skill however, the bright colour and variety of texture can allow for the production of some stunning works. Rating on Mohs hardness scale: 5 - 6

Shona Sculpture - Do you see my Beauty, David White, Opal Stone

Dolomite

Dolomite is a relatively soft stone, which is often white – pink. When iron is present in the material, it can also be yellow, gray or even black. Dolomite is a common stone, mined in many places and is not exclusive to shona sculpture. However, its ease of carving and availability make it a popular choice. It is also often found with transparent white crystals in its structure. When polished, this helps give a pearly, shiny luster.

Shona artists who work in dolomite often produce larger works, thanks to the ease of working and the relatively low cost due to its availability. The crystals within its structure can add depth and even some sparkle to a work in the right light. Rating on Mohs hardness scale: 3.5 - 4

Serpentine Stone

This stone is found across the world, and in a great many deposits within Zimbabwe. There is a large variation of colour and hardness within Serpentine, and as such it is a very versatile material. It can range from black-brown to green and even orange in some instances. Due to the natural variation in hardness, artists are able select a stone with properties that suit their needs and intentions. Often harder serpentine is used to allow for a more durable piece. There are some variations of Serpentine known as “Fruit serpentine” which are particularly colourful and varied deposits, often with deep veins of variated colours. When polished, the lustre is dependent on the type of stone and can again vary greatly. Rating on Mohs hardness scale: 1.2 - 6.5

Butter Jade

As the name suggests, Butter jade is a yellow, creamy shade – and is lined with darker strata throughout. However, it is not nearly as soft as butter- being quite a hard, durable stone. Despite the name, it is not a true Jade but carries the name due to similarities in finish and hardness. Butter jade is common to South Africa, but is rarely found elsewhere- the stone was formed 50 million years ago, and was given its characteristic darker streaks and lines due to layers of fossilised algae as the rock was forming.

The unusual colouration and pattern of this rock makes it a desirable material to sculpt from, as the natural variation within it adds beauty and complexity to any design. Hidden colours and patterns within the rock are revealed to the artist as they work, providing surprises as the form is slowly revealed during sculpting. Rating on Mohs hardness scale: 6 – 7

Shona Sculpture - Protecting the Egg, Lucknosa, Sapolite

Sapolite

Sapolite is a hard, white stone which is sometimes misleadingly called “White Opal”. However, it is very different from the gemstone. It is not often used by sculptors, perhaps owing to its hardness and the fact it is mined only in one area. Sapolite gives a pleasing white, waxy colour with a slightly pearly luster. Unusually, Sapolite is rarely finished or polished with a wax- as once waxed, sapolite will turn a creamy brown with pink tints. Generally this change in colour is considered undesirable, as it loses some of the natural features and colour of the stone in the process.

Shona Sculpture - Cat Nap, Witness Bonjisi, Fruit Serpentine

Lemon Opal

Lemon Opal is a type of opal stone, differentiated from the usual greenish hue of opalstone by it’s yellow striations within the stone. These are caused by veins of quartz, and are what give it its namesake, giving a lemony textured hue to the stone. This quartz also provides a greater depth of colour to the greens within the stone, giving an overall more colourful material. Typically, it is harder to sculpt that standard Opal stone and is also rarer, being found in fewer places. When finished, it gives a deep yellow-green, textured look with pleasing variation and a bright luster.

Shona Sculpture Gallery - Mother Daughter, Patrick Sephani, Opalstone

Leopard Stone

This is a creamy yellow coloured stone, with scattered black spock marks similar to those of a leopard. Leopard stone is a variation of serpentine. It is run through with iron rich minerals that form marks that look similar to leopard spots. This provides the namesake of the stone. Often, leopard rock will also contain bands of petrified wood, which also contributes to the pattern and feature of the rock. Unlike serpentine, it is a very hard stone and is typically very difficult to work with and to get the best out of. Typically, only skilled sculptors will attempt to carve using this rock. In addition, it is only mined in one area, meaning that Shona work using this material is relatively rare.

How Shona Sculpture is made

The work of Shona sculptures begin with the stone. Picking a piece of stone that is suitable for their intentions, or is simply a beautiful piece of material in itself is the first step. Shona sculptors often describe their work as “revealing the beauty” within the stone, saying that the material ‘speaks’ to them as they work. In Shona culture, the sculpting process is closely linked to their spirituality, and it is a common belief that the spirts of ancestors or creatures can be found within the rock itself.

Once the shape or spirit within the stone has been found, the artist will often begin by sketching the rough design onto the rock with charcoal. From there, hand tools are used to begin carving into the rock. Hammers and chisels of various shapes and sizes are used. In some instances, the sculptor themselves carves the stone from the rock face and so that process is also completed with hand tools.

Once enough of the rock is stripped away to provide a rough form for the work, the artist begins chasing the sculpture. This process involves using a small toothed hammer to work the surface of the stone, revealing the natural texture and shape of the rock and slowly shaping it towards their design. The chasing hammer leaves a rough surface, which is then smoothed as the sculpture begins to emerge.

Smoothing of the piece is done using files, grinders and where available, power tools. Increasingly fine tools are used, as the form is smoothed and finer details are brought out of the work. Small files, punch hammers and all manner of other hand or power tools are used as required to create the final, shaped form.

Once the artist is happy with the design, having brought their vision out from the rock, it is time to finish and polish the piece. Finishing is done via increasingly fine grades of sandpaper, as the surface is made smoother and smoother with washes done between each layer. Once smooth, polishing is the final step. Traditionally, the works were placed next to an open fire to warm at this stage, but often a blowtorch is now used. The work is warmed so that the application of layers of wax can melt and soak into the stones surface. Many layers of wax are built up into the stone, and are then buffed out to give a great shine and help provide an incredible depth of colour.

Shona sculptors seek to bring out the natural beauty of the stone they work where possible, and this process works with the natural shapes and imperfections found within the rock to create a piece that brings the stone to life. Often, Shona artists will leave sections of the stone un-carved and un-polished to provide a contrast to the beauty and form they have revealed within the piece. The beauty of their work comes from the elegance of the forms they create, the deep meaning the pieces hold in some of their cultures, and the beauty of the natural rock itself. Most Shona sculpture is still entirely hand carved, and is not mass produced- meaning each artist and their works are unique and one of a kind.

Maintenance of Shona Sculpture

Shona works are very easy to maintain- as they are constructed from hardy stones, there is little danger of weathering or damage from typical display. To keep them looking their best, as with anything on display, a light dusting and polish is all that’s required. Wipe any polished surfaces of the piece down a soft cloth or use a duster to remove any surface dust. Then, buff the polished surface with a polishing cloth or rag to bring the shine and lustre of the piece back out. Normally only a few minutes of polishing will be required to refresh the piece. For any rough or uncarved pieces of a Shona sculpture, a slightly damp cloth can be used to wipe it down and remove any dust or grime. A soft brush can also be used with some warm soapy water if required.

After a long period of time, a buffing with a cloth may not be able to return the piece to the original level of polish it initially had. If this is the case, some polished may need to be reapplied. Using a natural wax polish (beeswax, for example) to renew the finish will be needed. Whilst this can be applied to the piece in small amounts straight out of the tin, for best results it is advised that the piece is warmed up prior to application to allow the wax to melt into the crevices and ‘pores’ of the stone easier. Placing the piece in the warm sun, running a hair dryer over it or even placing the piece in an oven at a low temperature will be enough. The piece simply has to be warm to the touch prior to applying the wax for best results. Once the wax has been applied, simply buff it to a shine again using a soft polishing cloth. Generally, this process doesn’t need to be repeated that regularly- for indoor pieces, perhaps as rarely as every 10 years. For outdoor works that experience significant weather, it would be advisable to take a look every 5-7 years to see whether this is necessary.

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