ONCE upon a time, there was the usual prelude used by folk storytellers to gain maximum attention from their audience, mainly children.
For Shona-speaking storytellers they would expect the attentive audience to immediately respond by saying: “Dzepfunde (we are listening)”, which would encourage the storyteller to proceed.
Among the many old Shona tales that children were told was one about a prolonged drought in some fabled animal kingdom of herbivores, carnivores and omnivores which came together under the instruction of the king of the jungle, the most predatory animal, the lion, to dig a well.
According to the narrative, King Lion decreed that no animal would devour another or expose their past unresolved conflicts during the digging of the well.
Several animals came to work together in digging the well with the elephant becoming important in lifting heavy stones, warthogs for digging and giraffes for aerial view to spot enemies who would want to attack the animals.
Every animal was of paramount importance including the hare which is often called the wise trickster of the bush. The baboon, the hare’s past friend, maintained discipline of the union.
The slow but sure tortoise became the hero of the day after making the final and winning scratches to expose the precious liquid.
And asking someone to retell this story today without uttering a single word could be regarded an insane proposition.
Yet visual artist Gideon Masendeke managed to recount the tale without words, but using animal sculptures in varied postures depicting the scene during the well-digging endeavour; an accomplishment that has taken Zimbabwe’s visual art to new heights.
“I learnt a lot about the animal kingdom from my uncle Taurayi Maisiri who had a story to tell on each and every one of his carvings. This alone was my strong build-up for the passion for the animal kingdom,” Masendeke said. “The giraffe’s long legs helped in digging deeper, while its stunning height helped in spotting enemies from a distance.”
Masendeke said the well-digging story had many valuable lessons which artists could tap into.
Masendeke, who at one time had a residency at a South African arts hub, believes artists across the globe face many challenges like the animals in the folktale, but co-operation can help resolve some of the problems.
“Chitungwiza Arts Centre, which is being renovated, can, for example, soon become the favourite place for tourists through co-operation of all its interested parties,” he said.
Masendeke’s fine artworks done in spring stone, verdite, green opal and fruit stone have a painstaking finish that draws attention, while stimulating conversations on the animal kingdom. His understanding of animal postures remains a cut above the rest as viewers acquaint themselves with several animal habits with ease.
By Tendai Sauta