Module Thirty, Activity Four

Contemporary Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture: African Art?

For some people in Europe and North America when they think of Zimbabwe the first thing that comes to their mind is not the political crisis that plagued Zimbabwe for the first decade of the 21st century, nor the land issue highlighted in the last activity, but rather the critically acclaimed Zimbabwean art form of stone sculpture. It is not hard to understand why art collectors from around the world are enamored by this genre of art. Take a look for yourself. Use Google Images and search for Zimbabwean stone sculpture; take a few minutes to view the great diversity of images of the pieces that range in size from a few inches in height to human life-size, and vary in color from sandstone-cream to black. Given both the popularity of this art form—particularly in Europe, North America and East Asia, and it visual evocation of Africanity, it is hard to believe that the tradition of Zimbabwean stone sculpture is barely sixty years old. Indeed, its very contemporary roots and its primarily external validation (it has not been critically adopted as a Zimbabwean art form within the country itself), gives rise to the question—is Zimbabwean stone sculpture African Art? 

Consequently, we will need to address this issue in addition to exploring the aesthetics of Zimbabwean stone sculpture, the historical, social and culture context in which this art genre has been produced and marketed world-wide, along with an introduction to three of the prominent Zimbabwean stone sculptors. However, before proceeding to this discussion, we encourage you to read the introduction to our discussion of Art in Africa— Module Twelve. Reading this introduction will help prepare us for our discussion on Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture.

Situating Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture in the Context of African Art

Visual art has been part of the human experience for many millennia. Indeed, some archaeologists contend that the ability and desire to make art are essential human characteristics—that is, art helps define what it means to be human. A recent discovery of human etchings on ochre shells at the Blombos Cave 200 miles east of Cape Town, South Africa have been scientifically dated at 70,000 BCE, making these pieces the oldest known art work in Africa. More widespread throughout southern and eastern Africa are rock and cave paintings created by the Khoi-San peoples, some of which have survived the impact of corrosive weathering for a long 8,000 years. You can view photos of these rock paintings by Googling “African rock paintings.”

San rock painting, Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe, John Metzler

To better understand differing interpretations of Zimbabwean stone sculpture, particularly relating to the question of how this important art form relates both to Zimbabwean traditional forms of cultural expression and to the larger contemporary cultural, social and political context in which this art is produced, it is important situate this conversation within the discussion on art in Africa as outlined in the introduction to our unit on art in Africa.

The various ways in which Zimbabwean stone sculpture has been understood, both within Zimbabwe and by outside collectors and art critics, has been impacted by the ways in which art from other African societies and cultures has been interpreted over the past century. Specifically, there are four perspectives that have generated considerable discussion on African art that are relevant to our exploration of Zimbabwean stone sculpture.

First, from early European contact with African societies south of the Sahara in the 19th and early 20th centuries African art was characterized as representing deeply primordial cultural beliefs and ways of viewing the natural order of the world. As such, art in its many manifestations (objects, music, performance) were culturally determined and not expressions of individual or group creativity. According to this perspective, artists had little or no individualized input into the work they produced. Consequently, it was not important to credit—give attribution—to a specific artist for the work he/she/they produced. Works of African art, almost by definition, were considered anonymous. This perception is consistent with the boarder popular opinion among colonialists that African societies had no history in that they did not change and where not impacted by the creative actions or intentional designs of its citizens. African societies were thought to be static, lacking in innovation (social as well as in technology). Fortunately, this perspective, while still present, has been thoroughly challenged and discredited in the past decades by African and Africanist anthropologists and art historians. This tendency, however, has influenced the discussions on Zimbabwean stone sculpture where its authenticity, as African art, has been questioned by some, based on the prominence given to the celebration of the creativity of individual Zimbabwean sculptors. Moreover, some art commentators who applaud the aesthetic power of some Zimbabwean stone sculpture, challenge its Africanist pedigree, arguing that as a new form of art, developed in the 1950s with the encouragement of a few European art promoters, this art form cannot be considered to be traditional African art.

Secondly, and closely related, is the perspective that labeled African art as primitive. Defining a piece of art as primitive, is of course, relative— a value judgment implying comparison with modernity—being modern. Even among those who found primitive art (societies, cultures) to be interesting and even exciting to study, the art and societies in which it was produced were viewed as lacking in sophistication and governed by un-challengeable cultural norms and social structures that determined how people lived and what they produced—including their art. This is the opposite of their perception of modern societies where norms are not restrictive and universal and where individual creativity is encouraged, recognized, and rewarded. To be sure, this perspective did not stop Europeans from admiring the aesthetics of African art. Indeed, it has been clearly demonstrated that African representations, particularly west and central African masks, impacted the work of early 20th century European artists. This is most spectacularly demonstrated by Pablo Picasso’s Le Domieselles d’Avignon in which there is a striking form affinity between certain African mask styles and the ‘mask-like’ faces of two of the five women that are the subject of this famous painting.

Again, we see this largely discredited perspective reflected in the discussion on Zimbabwean stone sculpture in that while recognizing the recent provenance of this art form, it has been celebrated by many art critics for its authenticity to African culture themes and aesthetics, that is, its “primitive” character.

The debate over how best to characterize African art informs a third perspective that has impacted how Europeans and North Americans understood art in Africa. For reasons closely related to those outlined above, African art has often been classified as folk art. This classification was based on an understanding of African artists by outside observers. In western and northern global culture folk art is defined by the amateur status of the artist and by its aesthetic value. Folk art produced by amateurs does not have the same aesthetic value as art produced by trained professionals. For many decades, the accepted perspective was that African art was not produced by trained professionals but by anonymous individuals who lacked formal draining and whom have no particular status as artists within their communities. In recent decades, work by African art historians and anthropologists who have studied African artists have discredited theses assumptions demonstrating that in many African societies art is produced by individuals whom have undergone rigorous training and whom have status and respect as artists within their communities. This is certainly the case of stone sculptors with contemporary Zimbabwe, most of whom have undergone apprenticeships that can last up to four years and who make their living solely as artists.

Closely related to the idea that African art is folk art, is the fourth perspective that asserts that African artists, that is folk artists, did not traditionally produce pieces of art purely for its aesthetic value or as a purposeful expression of creativity. Art was not created for art’s sake. Rather, it was argued, all the pieces (music and performance as well as physical objects such as sculpture) produced within traditional African societies had what social scientists term functional value. That is, physical art, music and performance were not created primarily for enjoyment and pleasure, but rather had specific social, cultural or spiritual value to the culture and society in which it was produced and/or performed. Music and dance were performed for particular rituals; likewise, masks and sculptures were produced for specific and defined rituals often related to important life stages: birth, initiation, marriage, death, planting, harvesting, etc. Even art produced for tourists—sometimes termed sidewalk or airport art, is produced not for its artistic value, but for economic reasons. Given the prominence of this functional perspective, it is not surprising that outside observers of Zimbabwean stone sculpture have puzzled over the question if it represents authentic African art since the tradition is of recent vintage, has no ritualistic function within any of Zimbabwe’s cultures, and is produced as art by professional artists.

These perceptions, it is important to remember, while influential in determining how African art has been understood outside of Africa, tell us more about the predilection, prejudices and misconceptions held by Europeans and Americans than it does about African art and why it was produced or performed.

The Story of Zimbabwe Stone Sculpture

Art historians assert the importance of placing contemporary Zimbabwean rock sculpture—a tradition began in the 1950s--in the larger Zimbabwean historical and cultural context. Establishing if and how this new art form is connected to historical cultural expression and practice is important in the assessment of the Zimbabweaness of contemporary stone sculpture. Commentators and art historians point out that unlike African societies in central, east and west Africa, Zimbabwean peoples in the pre-colonial era did not have a strong tradition of sculpting masks or figurines from wood, stone, or metal. Among the ChiShona speaking societies of south central Africa there was not an inclusion of such art objects in important rituals performed around major life and community events such as birth, initiation, marriage, death, planting, and harvest. Consequently, it is not surprising that there has been no appropriation of contemporary stone sculpture for cultural or rituals purposes by Zimbabweans since the rise of the art form in the 1960s. Indeed, unlike contemporary expressions of Zimbabwean music and written literature, both of which have wide-spread popularity, stone sculpture has had limited impact on contemporary popular culture in the country.

However, there is a strong and ancient Zimbabwean tradition of building with stone. The most spectacular example of skillful stone architecture is Great Zimbabwe, discussed in some detail in Module Six A,  African History before 1500 CE, Activity Four. It would be helpful if you took a few minutes to read the discussion on this important Zimbabwean civilization.

Zimbabwe Ruins Wall of Zimbabwe Ruins

Of strong interest to our discussion are the large soapstone carved birds that were placed atop poles on the upper wall of the Great Enclosure (photos above). Only seven of these birds remain in Zimbabwe. It is assumed that other birds were taken away from Zimbabwe in the late 19th century by European travelers and may exist in private European collections. These soapstone birds have been appropriated as important symbols of independent Zimbabwe being prominently represented in both the Zimbabwean coat of arms the country’s flag.

Historians and anthropologists who study Shona history and culture indicate that certain birds play an important role in Shona spiritual beliefs. Some commentators think the Zimbabwean birds were modeled on the crowned hornbill, a very common bird in the area. Others speculate that the birds were modeled on the betaleur eagle (chapunga in CiShona), which is viewed in Shona cosmology as a messenger between the spirit world and humankind, with a special role of protecting humans from evil spirits. There is speculation that the soapstone birds were symbolic of protection, rain, and fertility, for example the common fish eagle – hungwe, is associated with rain, water, and fertility. Relatedly, at the base of many of pillars on which the birds rested there were carved crocodiles—a symbol of fertility in Shona cosmology. Regardless of the symbolic meaning of the birds, working is stone is clearly not new tradition for Shona artists, even though the genre of contemporary stone sculpture is of recent vintage.

The Creation of an Art Tradition

The story of the creation and expansion of Zimbabwe stone sculpture is interesting and controversial. As indicated above this tradition is very recent having its beginning in the 1950s at the National Gallery of Rhodesia. A major area of controversy relates the prominent role played by two expatriate Europeans in the development of the stone carving movement. The sculptors were all African, albeit not all were Shona in spite of the early attribution of “Shona sculpture,” and the themes of the pieces were clearly informed by traditional beliefs and mythology (more on this below). However, it is equally clear that this tradition would not have been initiated, nor would it have experienced it rise in global prestige without the influence of external mentors. 

Several key figures in the development of stone sculpture need to be recognized: Frank McEwen (director of the National Gallery of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe), Tom Blomefield (founder of Tengenenge Sculpture Community) and Joram Mariga—the first Zimbabwean stone sculptor. Mariga started out as a wood carver who on his own began to carve in soapstone. His work came to the attention of McEwen who encouraged Mariga to experiment with other rock types such as serpentine. Although Mariga is not celebrated as one of the important first generation of Zimbabwean rock sculptors his influence on the genesis of the genre is enormous. If McEwen hadn’t been introduced to Mariga and his early efforts in carving soapstone it is unlikely that McEwen would have encouraged other emerging Zimbabwean artists to pursue rock sculpting.

Frank McEwen was British by birth, but he trained in France at the Sorbonne and the Art Academy in Toulon (southern France). Upon completion of his formal art training he served as the Fine Arts Representative at the British Council in Paris from 1945-1955 after which he was recruited to become the director of the National Gallery of Rhodesia. He had studied African traditional art (mainly West African and the Congolese art) while in Paris. This interest in African art led McEwen to investigate traditional art in Zimbabwe, particularly among the majority Shona peoples, finding that there was not a strong tradition of craving—in any media—among the Shona,

In 1957 McEwen founded the National Gallery Workshop School to support emerging Zimbabwean artists. Following the example of Joram Mariga the Workshop participants were encouraged to explore stone sculpting. “. . .the artists were given tools and stone and the necessary encouragement . These men [all were men!] largely rural born, of limited [formal] education but steeped in the beliefs and cultural traditions which made their traditional Shona culture a living culture. McEwen believed that the spiritual depths of these men were equal to those of made what was [then] called ‘tribal art,’ and he encouraged the to tap these depths through their sculpture. No direction was imposed upon the, no one style was considered acceptable, and not specified relationship with their material was expected.” (Celia Winter- Irving, Stone Sculpture in Zimbabwe: Context, Content, Form 1991, p 17) Many of the first generation of successful Zimbabwean sculptors were trained in at the Workshop School.

A second important figure in the development of this art form was Tom Blomefield an expatriate miner and farmer at Tengenenge, a rural area 140 kms north east of Harare on veldt near the Zambezi escarpment. His farm workers came from Zimbabwean (Shona), Malawian (Chewa and Yao speakers) Mozambique (Ndau speakers) and Zambia (variety of ethnic groups). Due to the predominance of Malawian workers on his farm he became fluent in ChiChewa and developed a keen interest in Chewa culture. In the late 1960s when international sanctions reduced tobacco sales, instead of laying off his workers he developed a “craft school” that became known as the Tengenenge Sculpture Community for his former workers. Blomefield encouraged emerging sculptors to “reach into the traditional beliefs of their parent culture for inspiration.” (Winter-Irving, p 17). Between 1970 and 2000 dozens of stone sculptors from Zimbabwe as well from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia developed their sculpting skills at Tengenenge, some of whom became as globally celebrated as artists who apprenticed at the National Gallery in Salisbury (Harare).

There is an ongoing debate among scholars and commentators whom have studied Zimbabwean stone sculpture and sculptors regarding the impact and influence of these European mentors and subsequent European, Asian, and North American collectors on the development of the content and form of this newly created Zimbabwean art form. Although there are numerous assessments they can be divided into two broad perspectives. One perspective recognizes the external influence on the creation of this new Zimbabwean art form, but assert that in form and substance the sculpted pieces are Zimbabwean—the pieces created by Zimbabweans sculptors who draw deeply on their Zimbabwean (Malawian, Mozambiquean) cultural beliefs, values, worldview, and mythology in creating their art. As such, even though contemporary stone sculpture is not a traditional art form the pieces are traditional in their form and content. The second critical perspective challenges this assessment arguing that other than the fact that the rocks that are sculpted and the sculptors are from Zimbabwe (or elsewhere in south central Africa) there is nothing uniquely Zimbabwean in the form and content of the sculpture. Indeed, one critic argues that contemporary Zimbabwean sculpture is a fabrication created and maintain by expatriate and foreign mentors and patrons.

The first perspective is exemplified by the work of Celia Winter-Irving quoted above.

“Both Frank McEwen and Tom Blomefield, from different positions and perspectives, had a developed and sensitive understanding of their artists’ cultural backgrounds and their need to make art in response to what was culturally most important to them—the beliefs and observations of their parent cultures.” (p 17)

According to this perspective, McEwen and Blomefield did not attempt to influence either the content or form of the emerging art form. Instead they encouraged the new sculptors to use the stone in traditional ways to explore traditional Zimbabwean (and Malawian) mythology and themes. Proponents of this perspective argue that Zimbabwean stone sculpture, while of recent vintage with no artistic roots in southern African cultures, reflect deep cultural roots. This point of view is succinctly summarized by Winter-Irving in the introduction to her book.

[Zimbabwean stone sculpture] is essentially African. [M]ost importantly its African qualities do not have exclusively formal parameters. The sculpture is the collective expression of historic beliefs and the societies represented by the artists (with culturally determined variants) in a spiritual rationale or explanation for the workings of the real or natural world. Largely, its subject matter is expressive of the general African belief, again with societally and culturally determined differences, that African man [sic] is part of a larger plan than that devised for Western man [sic]. It links the living with the dead, the visible and invisible universe, and the mortal and spiritual realm. [However] unlike tribal [sic] art, the sculpture performs no ritualistic or ceremonial function, nor does it have any place in the material culture of the societies represented by artists. Yet it is far from ‘art for art’s sake.’ Its aesthetic origins largely lie in the artists’ realizations of the spiritual dimensions of their traditional cultures. Form and content have a similar genesis(p 1)

According to this perspective, the indignity (Africanity) of this contemporary art form goes beyond the impact of traditional culture on the artists and the themes expressed in their work to include the rocks with which they work. “Common to all Zimbabwean sculptors is the primacy of their relationship with their material, the locally mined stone: serpentine, springstone, steatite, fagamaso and fagamazi. . . and the decorative Chiweshe Stone. . . some Shona artists believe that there is a presence within the stone, a material truth which must be respected and preserved, and a spiritual force that guides their work. The stone before it is carved it is carved has a highly sculptural quality. Some stone its seems was sculpted before it became sculpture. . . the use of stone by the sculptors speaks of the long historical association of stone with Zimbabwe, and the depth of the country’s historical roots. The stone, which is millions of years old, imparts a sense of history to the sculpture. It conveys the feeling that the sculpture is as old as the material, and is part of a centuries-old continuity or art practice among the societies represented by the artists.” (Winter-Irving, P 32) 

The perspective, as outline above, has become the dominant way in which Zimbabwean stone sculpture has been explained and interpreted both in Zimbabwe and among European and North American collectors. However this dominant view has not gone unchallenged. A strong counter perspective claims that Zimbabwean stone sculpture is a “modernist creation” with no roots, in form or content, in Zimbabwean material, ritual, or lived culture. Carole Pearce is a leading proponent of this perspective which she details in her article, The Myth of ‘Shona Sculpture’ Zambezia XX (2) 1993 (pp 85-107)

Pearce summarized her argument in the article abstract (p 85) ‘Shona sculpture’ has always relied heavily for its commercial success on its supposed authenticity and autonomy. However, the genre is neither rooted in the spontaneous expression of traditional Black spirituality, nor is it an autonomous contemporary Black art form. The sculpture is easily explained as a deliberate product of the modernist tastes of White expatriates during the 1950s and 1960s and, in particular, those of the first Director of the National Gallery [of Rhodesia, Frank McEwen]. Pearce claims that McEwen, had modernist tastes/sensibilities—reflecting his Paris art training, which was combined with a distain for lower/middle class White sensibilities of 1950s Rhodesian ruling class, and a romantic but erroneous perspective of African tradition and culture . . .including “the idea that Africans were somehow more authentic and closer to nature than Whites. . .[and that] the less educated and less urban were the Africans, the more they were in harmony with nature and the primeval forces; the deeper and more compelling their religious beliefs and the more binding their social structures. But while crass White Rhodesians thought that Africans were primitive and therefore ignorant, McEwen thought that they were primitive, and therefore, closer to the well-springs of creativity than trained [white] artists.” (87) 

Pearce argues that McEwen bought into a dominant idea that all African expressive culture was determined and controlled by deeply held, and often unconscious, beliefs and values; what she calls an exotic essentialism. According to Pearce McEwen was influenced by the work of the early 20th century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. McEwen supported Jungian theories of the relationship between “primitive minds’ and art. This theory assumed the existence of a ‘collective unconscious.’ ‘Primitive man’ left to his own unschooled talents, is able to grasp and communicate universal themes through the medium of art. Universal themes expressed by untutored minds emerge from traditional folk-tales, spiritual and religious beliefs. . . . from the realm of the sacred rather than the secular.” (87)-- Quotes McEwen himself from a 1989 article – “ Zimbabwean artists at no time barrowed from abroad. The relate exclusively to their own mystical folk traditions and to early African styles and they are instinctively award of the millennial foundations of their ancient culture.” 

Pearce claims that this ideology impacted the selection (primarily rural or urban township with minimal formal education) and the training (no formal art training—no exposure to “western” art, form or content) of the first generation of Zimbabwean sculptors. She claims that Zimbabwean sculptors, from the beginning developed a deep long lasting “dependency” on white/liberal patrons. Pearce further claims that contemporary stone sculpture lacks authentic originality as displayed, in her view, in the formulaic nature of Zimbabwean art sculpture. Consequently, differing from the standard appraisal that celebrates the creativity of this sculpture, Pearce claims that there is little more diversity among artists as among the much maligned “airport” art of Zimbabwe.

Pearce further claims that Zimbabwean artists were much more influenced in their work by the Congolese and West African mask collection that McEwen at assembled at the National Gallery than they were by uniquely Zimbabwean cultural traditions—therefore negating any Zimbabwean roots. Challenging the authenticity of Zimbabwean sculpture she claims that “‘Shona Sculpture’ does not derive from any kind of indigenous tradition: It is a an appropriated style working in a doubly borrowed idiom: firstly, from early [European] modernism, and secondly, from West African traditional art via European modernism.” (95) 

In developing her critique of Zimbabwean stone sculpture Pearce is careful not lump all Zimbabwean cultural expressions with her assessment of stone sculpture. Pearce writes with high praise for contemporary Zimbabwean popular music and literature (written based on oral literature) that she claims genuinely appeals to and widely consumed by ordinary Zimbabweans in rural and urban areas. (96)

Pearce and other critics of the dominant perspective comment on what they perceive to be the apolitical nature of Zimbabwean sculpture. They claim that very few sculptures have openly political or contemporary themes. This is very different from contemporary Zimbabwean music and literature that has overtly and purposefully addressed current political and social issues relating to the struggle for independence, poverty, violence and HIV-AIDS. Again, Pearce attributes the apolitical nature of Zimbabwean sculpture external, European, influence on the genre. Patrons were not interested in contemporary political or social themes. The themes displayed in contemporary sculpture dominated by traditional spiritual mythology are, she argues, far removed from the social, economic and political realities of ordinary Zimbabwean who live in rural communal areas and urban townships (high density suburbs)--realities that deeply impact the work of contemporary Zimbabwean writers and musicians, but have had, according to Pearce, little impact on the work of world famous Zimbabwean sculptors.

The world of the sculptor is purified and largely invented world. Zimbabwean stone sculpture depicts, for a market of jet-setting bourgeois, foreign city dwellers . . . It is this phenomenon, so far removed from the harsh realities of life in the communal lands, characterized by poverty, dispersal, destabilization,, crime, the destruction of family life, urbanization, modernization and the collapse of authority, which needs explanation. . .the romantic depiction of life is likely to be more in keeping with the tastes of promoters, markets and sycophantic commentators, than the real life experience of the sculptors.” (100) 

Your Turn

We have attempted to present these two perspectives in an objective manner that does not disclose which perspective we hold on Zimbabwean stone sculpture. We have endeavored this neutrality to provide students with the opportunity to come to your own conclusion. We encourage students to write a short essay in which they present their own perspective on the authenticity and aesthetic value of contemporary Zimbabwean stone sculpture. In constructing their argument students should not simply restate the arguments presented above, but should try to present a nuanced personal perspective that may draw on arguments from both of the perspectives presented above.

Three Zimbabwean Sculptors

The final section of this exposé on Zimbabwean stone sculpture will feature three of the many artists who became full time professional sculptors since the initiation of this art form in the late 1950s. The selection of the three featured artists is not based on an aesthetic assessment of their work in comparison to other artists, but rather the selection was based on pedagogical and practical reasons. There is pedagogical value in looking at the work of a representative of the first three generations of Zimbabwean stone sculpture to demonstrate continuities and changes within the art form over the past half century.

Michigan State University (developer of Exploring Africa) faculty have had personal working relationships with two of the featured artists (Nicholas Mukomberanwa and Damien Manuhwa) making available a richer set of biographical materials on these artist than what is available on other artists.

The selection of Agnes Nyanhongo (a third generation sculptor) was based on her gender (one of the few successful female Zimbabwean sculptors) as well as on her international reputation as an artist.

The appended map shows where each of these artists were born and spent their childhoods in three different rural districts of eastern Zimbabwe.

Nicholas Mokomberanwa: Buhera
Damien Manuhwa: Rusape
Agnes Nyanhongo: Nyanga

Nicolas Mukomberanwa (1940-2002)

Nicolas Mukomberanwa is widely regarded as one of the best of the first generation of Zimbabwean stone sculptors. Based on the acceptance of and demand for his work in Europe and North America, he was among the most successful sculptors of his generation.

As was the case with the vast majority of his peers Mukomberanwa was raised in rural Zimbabwe, steeped in traditional Shona culture. He was born and grew up in the Buhera “tribal trust land” (now district) of Rhodesia (see map). As a youth he was enrolled at the Serima Mission School, in equally rural adjacent Masvingo Province. The Swiss Catholic priests who founded and ran Serima Mission bought into the prevailing educational philosophy that argued that education for Africans should not focus on academics, beyond basic literacy, but rather on providing vocational skills that would purportedly help the students secure employment within the sphere of economic activities open to Africans in an increasingly racialized Rhodesia.

Among the vocational arts taught at the Serima mission was woodcarving. It was here that Mukomberanwa first developed his interest and skills in carving. Reflecting the strong religious focus of the mission, much of the art produced by students was Christian in orientation.

Wood Panel in church at Serima Mission

Upon completing his training at Serima mission in the late 1950s, Mukomberanwa joined the “native” police force in Salisbury (Harare), one of the few occupations open to Zimbabwean men in the 1950s. It was in Salisbury in the early 1960s that he met Frank McEwen who encourage Mukomberanwa to participate in National Gallery Workshop School. It was here that he developed his skills as stone sculptor. By the late 1960s he was successful enough to resign from the police force and dedicate himself fully to his art.

In the early 19080s Mukomberanwa moved his workshop to a rural homestead that he purchased in Ruwa, a district just to the east of Harare. It was at this workshop that he produced many of his most celebrated pieces. See photos below of him work at his Ruwa workshop in the mid 1980s.

There is a general consensus among art critics that Mukomeranwa’s work, although very dynamic and changing over the years that he sculpted, reflects a deep attachment and commitment to Shona traditional values, beliefs and world-view. This is perspective of his work is reflected in the assessment of Celia Winter-Irving, already quoted: “Through his work her persuades his audience of the value of traditional Shona beliefs and observances still of moral and social benefit to Shona society today. His is no simplistic view of Shona spirituality, couched in superstition, but a profound commitment to the age-old ordinances of the Shona and its relevance today . . .[His] sculpture[s] show the approachability of the spiritual realm , and the possible permanent relationship of man [sic] and spirit.” (1991, p 109)

In addition to the few photos of his work that are reproduced here, you are encouraged to visit the appended websites to view a much broader selection of the rich diversity and aesthetic power of Nicolas Mukomberanwa’s work.

Nicholas Mukomberanwa at Ruwa workshop
Mukomberanwa sculpting, Ruwa. 1986.
Nicholas Mukomberanwa’s Ruwa Workshop, 1986
Nicholas Mukomeranwa, Sympathizing With
Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Bird Sleeping
Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Bird Sleeping



Nicholas Mukomberanwa Baboon Chief


Damien Manuhwa (1952-2007)

Damien Manuhwa, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1991. Photo by James Cunningham

Damien Manuhwa represents the second generation of Zimbabwean stone sculptors. Born in rural Rusape district of Manyika Province (see map) in 1952 he received his primary (elementary) school education at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic mission in Headlands, not far from his home. Manuhwa did not start sculpting until the early 1970s. He was introduced to the genre of stone sculpting by Joram Mariga whom he met in 1969. In 1970 Manuhwa was invited to study at the Workshop School of the National Gallery where he, like many other Zimbabwean sculptors of his generation, came under the influence of Frank McEwen.

After his two year stint at the National Gallery Manuhwa supported his sculpting by working fulltime as a bus driver in Salisbury (Harare). By 1980, the year of Zimbabwe’s independence, he was making sufficient money from the sale of his sculptures to allow him to resign from his driving position and turn his full attention to sculpting. In that year he opened an urban workshop attached to his residential home in Chitungwiza, a high-density suburb of Harare. Over the next quarter of a century, until his premature death in 2007, Manuhwa produce many fine works of sculpture and apprenticed a number of third generation stone sculptors, including his son Hilary Manuhwa (who is currently sculpting in England), in his Chitungwiza workshop.

Damien Manuhwa’s decision to develop his workshop in a high-density urban area, reflects a conscious choice to work in an urban environment and to allow his art to be informed by this environment. This decision separates Manuhwa and his work from that of Mukomberanwa and other first generation Zimbabwean sculptors who intentionally established their workshops in rural areas of Zimbabwe where they produced pieces that were reflective of traditional themes (as detailed above).

Manuhwa’s decision to work from an urban environment, did not mean that his subsequent work did not reflect traditional Shona themes, but as Winter-Irving notes he was among the first, and few, Zimbabwean sculptors to reflect the urban realities that impacted the lives of an increasing number of Zimbabweans, responding to the rapid “social changes that accompanied [Zimbabwean] independence in 1980.” (1991, page 89). Manuhwa’s work challenges the criticism, noted above, that Zimbabwean sculpture, although very young, is confined to interpretations of traditional mythological themes.

In addition to his demonstrated talents as an artist, Manuhwa was an open and articulate spokesperson for Zimbabwean sculpture. This combination made him an attractive ambassador of the genre in Europe and North America where he was an invited artist in resident on numerous occasions in the 1990s and early 2000s including in Portland Oregon, Cleveland, Boston and most recently in 2005, the Chicago Botanical Gardens. In addition, Manuhwa opened his workshop in Chitungwiza to groups of visiting students from North America and Europe, even inviting visiting students to intern at his workshop. Indeed, students and professors from Michigan State University who were privileged to visit Damien Manuhwa’s workshop, contributed the photos used in this piece.

Damien Manuhwa, Chitungwiza Workshop, 1990. Photo by John Metzler.
Damien Manuhwa, Artist in Residence, Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo by James Cunningham
Hilary Manuhwa at Chitungwiza Workshop. Photo by Ray Silverman
Damien Manuhwa, Fortune Teller African Studies Center, Michigan State University. Photo: John Metzler
Damien Manuhwa, Horn Man, African Studies Center, Michigan State University. Photo: John Metzler
Damien Manuhwa, Spirit Medium & Animal African Studies Center, Michigan State University. Photo: John Metzler
Damien Manuhwa, Woman of Distinction.
Damien Manuhwa & John Metzler -director of Exploring Africa - with Woman of Distinction
Damien Manuhwa, Triplets. Photo by John & Adeline Metzler

Agnes Nyanhongo (1960- )

The vast majority of professional Zimbabwean stone sculptors have been male. However, there are notable women sculptors, Agnes Nyanhongo, being among the most critically acclaimed female sculptors. Nyanhongo, born in 1960 at Mazarura in Nyanga district in the highlands of Manyika province (see map), came to sculpting in the early 1980s steeped in family tradition . Her father, Claude Nyanhongo is a famous first generation stone sculptor, and several of her older brothers are also professional sculptors.

As was the case with Nicholas Mukomberanwa and Damien Manuhwa, Agnes Nyanhongo trained at the Workshop School at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe between 1981-1983. In 1987 she was invited to join the Chapungu Galleries in Harare, the most prestigious gallery in Zimbabwe. While her work has been displayed in galleries throughout North America, Europe and Japan, she continues to work out of the Chapungu Galleries. Unlike her father and other first generation sculptors Nyanhongo decided not to set up a workshop in a her rural area, choosing to work in an urban environment. However, her urban location does not mean that her work is not influenced by traditional Zimbabwean themes. Indeed, art critics praise her work for integrating traditional themes with influences from her contemporary urban environment.

According to numerous published interviews Agnes Nyanhongo does not consider herself to be a feminist artist, but readily admits that her work reflects the role and struggles of contemporary Zimbabwean women as they seek to balance their responsibilities as mothers, spouses, and workers/professionals—in her case as an artist. As demonstrated in the appended photos of some of her pieces, she purposefully features women, women with each other, and women with children. You will note the strength and dignity that Nyanhongo infuses in her women.

A number of her pieces have won prestigious awards and have commanded commissions equal to the most respected Zimbabwe male sculptors.

The following images are uploaded from Anges Nyanhongo’s own webpage

African Daydreams
A Friend from the Beginning
Corrupting Power of Money
Graceful Wisdom
Chosen One
Sharing Wisdom

Your Turn

We have briefly highlighted the life and work of just three of numerous Zimbabwean artists who have gained a reputation as world-class artists over the past four decades. Do a computer search for Zimbabwean stone sculptors. Select three additional sculptors; read what is available on their lives and work; carefully exam photos of their work. If possible try to identify and select an artist who began sculpting in the new millennium. How are their stories similar and how are they different from the stories of the three artists that we highlighted? What are the major themes of their work? Are these themes similar to those of our featured sculptors? How, if at all, does their work show thematic originality in comparison to what we have indicated are the primary themes of Zimbabwe stone sculpture?

This is the final activity in this module. Return to the curriculum or select from one of the other activities in this module.