Zimbabwe has a long stone carving tradition dating back to the Munhumutapa Empire in the 12th century. The centre of the empire was the Great Zimbabwe, a city built from granite blocks fitted together without mortar; it is this ancient city that modern day Zimbabwe derives its name from.
In the ruins a number of birds carved from soapstone which are believed to be the Hungwe (Fish Eagle) were found. Some of them were stolen by European explorers in the 19th century and later returned some time after Zimbabwe attained independence.
The soapstone birds known as the Zimbabwe birds are now a national emblem and can be seen on the flag of the Republic of Zimbabwe, coat of arms and many other national symbols. However, there is no direct link between the soapstone sculptures of great Zimbabwe with contemporary commercial Zimbabwean stone sculpture.
Contemporary Zimbabwean stone sculpture was initiated by Canon Edward Patterson, Father John Groeber, Joram Mariga, Frank McEwen and Tom Blomefield during the 1950’s. The major markets for Zimbabwean stone sculpture are predominately countries in Europe, North America, Australia and countries in the east like South Korea and to a lesser extent African countries like South Africa.
According to journalist Fanuel Jongwe, “Zimbabwean stone sculptures is ubiquitous. One will find a piece perched on a pedestal in a gallery in Auckland, New Zealand, or one perched in a back garden in Seoul, South Korea, on a stoep in Durban or gracing the display cabinet of a celebrity in the United States”.
Some scholars like Carol Pearce have questioned the authenticity of Zimbabwean stone sculpture out of her reflections on the way in which, over time, views originally thought to be daringly radical and avant-garde become incorporated into the general stream of thought. She argues that the myth of Shona sculpture is an illustration of this process.
Though her argument might hold water to some degree, it defeats the course of promoting Zimbabwean stone sculpture. The economic importance of the sculpture industry cannot be taken for granted as sculpture is as a means of survival for a number of Zimbabweans who are unemployed in the formal sector where unemployment rates are estimated to be over 80 percent. The debate on what is “authentic” and what is not in art scholarship is never conclusive.
The subject matter of Zimbabwean sculpture ranges from the mystical and spirit worlds of ancestors, metamorphosis, trance and spirit forms – which was a popular area of exploration for the early generation of sculptors, nature, celebrations of womanhood, to birth and death. Winter – Irving notes that the younger generations of sculptors have broken with the long established tradition of spirit forms and myth and ventured into socio-political themes.
Among the young sculptors, stone remains the common ground to express concerns familiar to all artists today. Rather than sculpturing which grapple with the apparition of the spiritual realm, stones are smashed in the name of prevailing violence and civil disruption (Winter-Irving 2004:42).
However in its short history spanning no more than sixty years the industry has had its fair share of challenges since its inception stemming initially from the resistance it faced by the racist Rhodesian establishment, the second Chimurenga, Operation Murambatsvina and the economic meltdown which resulted in a decrease in tourist arrivals from countries whose citizens predominately bought Zimbabwean sculptures .