FOR people passing by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, it is almost difficult to miss the intriguing sculptures erected outside this iconic arts space.

These stone pieces are part of the gallery’s permanent collection and some of them have been there for decades.

Sylvester Mubayi, whose artworks are dotted around the premises, is a legendary figure in the industry, having made a significant contribution to the development of the craft in the country.

One of his best pieces is “The Great Spirit”, which is at the front entrance of the National Gallery and has been there since 1973.

Being among the first generation of Zimbabwean sculptors with a career spanning over five decades, the old man is not about to down his hammer and chisel and he continues to produce exceptional pieces.

At 74, his work remains remarkable, which is why he is among the artistes selected to represent Zimbabwe at the 57th Venice Biennale which takes place from May 13 to November 26 in Italy.

Other artistes who are set to light up the Zimbabwean Pavilion at this showpiece, the world’s biggest international arts exhibition include Admire Kamudzengerere, Charles Bhebhe and Dana Whabira.

While these three young artistes are establishing themselves as the best in their craft, Mubayi is in a league of his own.

His pieces, which are representative of local spiritual practices, wildlife, humanity and cultural relations are not just pleasing to the eye but are also laden with meaning.

With work that has received great international acclaim at prestigious exhibitions dating back to the early ‘70s, his career has been nothing but colourful. Over the years, his talents have not gone unnoticed with his exploits earning him the Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Award for Sculpture in 1969.

His influence on the global scene cannot be doubted as The Guardian included him on their top 10 list of the best artistes in the world in 1991.

Many arts critics around the world mention his name when they speak of the most gifted sculptors in history.

At one point Mubayi was resident artiste at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and also helped establish several arts institutions in the country.

Speaking to The Sunday Mail Leisure last week, the grand old man of sculpture talked of how he felt to have been chosen to represent Zimbabwe in Venice as he reflected on his storied career.

“It is an honour that I am still recognised to the extent of being chosen to go and raise the country’s flag high at an exhibition such as the Venice Biennale at my age,” said Mubayi. “I was shocked when (National Art Gallery chief curator) Mr (Raphael) Chikukwa came to my studio in Chitungwiza to deliver the news …”

While art has taken this man to places some people only dream of visiting, it has not been an easy road.

Growing up during the colonial era under tough conditions in Marondera, his education was cut short as he had to work on tobacco farms to make ends meet after his father passed away.

After years of toiling, he decided to sculpting a shot, and the realisation that he could earn a living from art led to him taking up the craft full-time.

“In 1960 after developing an interest in sculpture, I went and joined other artistes at Tengenenge Sculpture Community in Guruve to learn the craft. At this institution, you had to learn to sculpt on your own but since I had developed some craftsmanship at an early age while making cattle yokes and tree bark knapsacks, I leant quickly.

“You would be given a stone and told to create whatever was on your mind and this is how I got to develop as an artiste.”

The pieces they made at Tengenenge would be exhibited at the National Gallery and sold on behalf of the artistes for princely sums.

“Back in the day you could sell one piece and earn enough money to buy two cars but these days art is no longer paying as much.

‘‘Taking up art was a life-changing experience because I even managed to buy my own house and other properties, which I would not have been able to do as a farm hand.”

He shed light on his source of inspiration, citing his background as the major influence on his art.

“Most of my art pieces are inspired by things that I witnessed growing up, especially processes that spirit mediums go through as well as human and animal interaction.”

He said he already had an idea about the sculptures he was taking with him to Venice.

“There are several pieces which I think would do well at an international stage such as this particular exhibition. My work will be based on several themes but I will still fuse the animal, human and spiritual elements as I have always done in the past.”

While he might be slowing down because of old age, he said he does not wish to give up anytime soon and wanted to pass on his knowledge to the next generation.

Most of his children and grandchildren have followed in his steps and only time will tell if they will able to replicate his towering achievements.

Source; Sunday Mail

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