By Dr Tony Monda
ANY account of modern-day Zimbabwean art cannot be given without taking into consideration the majority of indigenous people’s world outlook; how they think, feel, see and believe their world is, was and can be. Especially so in Zimbabwe, a former colony of Britain until independence on April 18 1980. The flourishing of stone sculpture of Zimbabwe, from 1956 to the present, its worldwide popularity and it visual evocation of African culture, makes it hard to believe the tradition of this art form is barely 60 years old.
For many decades, the accepted perspective was that African art was not produced by trained professionals, but anonymous individuals who lacked formal training and who had (and still have) no particular status as artists within their communities. Zimbabwean sculptors have, with a few exceptions, received their training informally through various indigenous workshops and artistic community training. Many served their apprentices with experienced first-generation artists from whom they honed psychomotor skills and traditional knowledge. This informal training produced an extremely rich and unique genre of contemporary art.
The contemporary roots and its universal validation have been appreciably espoused as an authentic Zimbabwean visual expression. Zimbabwean visual arts have earned immense global publicity since independence. The creative resilience of indigenous Zimbabwean artists has survived and regenerated itself over the past five decades and continues to make an impact the world over. The sculptors themselves had an innate talent for sculpting and an aptitude for imaging. Currently Zimbabwean art venerates the exchange of human and artistic values and morals, made feasible by the co-existence of a wide diversity of approaches and forms of expression.
Art, in its forms of literature, dance, theatre, film, music and the visual arts is a valuable socio-economic and cultural asset adjunct to the existing socio-economic developmental policies in Zimbabwe.
The main non-colonial European protagonist of modern Zimbabwean stone art, Frank Jack McEwen (1906 – 1994), who was well read on the processes of African indigenous creativity, from central, western and north African art, recognised the latent potential in local people by looking at the history they had once created; Great Zimbabwe’s stone masonry as well as stone carvings and encouraged the first group of sculptors to produce their intuitive work. McEwen was eventually deported in 1973 by the Rhodesian authorities for his ‘dealings’ with indigenous African peoples.
Art education in Rhodesia (1964-1980) was separatist in nature and defined by race and sex.
Visual art was taught to white girls and boys who were not academically inclined.
Africans on the other hand were taught industrial craft work. This was in accordance with the general educational ordinances under which white children were being groomed for management positions and African children for servitude and semi-skilled technical posts. The art education offered was Euro-centric and of little relevance to the majority of indigenous students. Education in the arts and creative business studies cultivates conditions and individuals who can express imagination and bring intangible ideas and concepts to economic reality.
However, our local education systems to date still do not provide tangible support for ‘innovation’ as a core component of their curricula. Teaching creativity in schools needs to extend beyond visual art and craft as it manifests itself in empathy not only with culture, but economics, business and overall human development.
Isolated creative fundamentals such as cognition, foresight, insight, inventiveness, resourcefulness, perception and vision can be employed in all spheres of a nation’s development.
Once largely neglected as a sector of the economy, or labelled as an elitist pursuit, art and the creative industries are more and more recognised for their ability to create development opportunities and generate income. Art serves as a civic, economic and spiritual barometer of a nation and as such, is central to discussions around sustainable development.
Fortunately in recent decades, work by African art historians who have studied African artists has discredited these assumptions, demonstrating that in many African societies art is produced by individuals who have undergone rigorous training and who have status and respect as artists within their communities. This is certainly the case with Zimbabwe contemporary stone sculptors, most of whom have undergone apprenticeships lasting up to four years and who derive their living solely from their art.
Given that economic emphasis worldwide has shifted to a drive for sustainable growth, we will see more and more organisations, businesses and communities assigning greater value to human creativity.
As such Zimbabwe needs to embrace the new creative culture, especially so in these times of slow world economic growth and fiscal uncertainties.
Economic prosperity would rely on an inclusive national formula which espouses cultural, entrepreneurial, civic and artistic creativity.
Art development, scholarship and patronage should become major components of the overall education curriculum and socio-economic development of Zimbabwe.
As a nation, we need to create support structures and logistical systems to elevate our creative workforce.
Zimbabwe’s economic development today requires the further development and use of human creative capabilities in all spheres of the economic productive strata.
Economic prosperity would rely on an inclusive national formula which espouses cultural, entrepreneurial and artistic creativity.
The potential of the creative economy in Zimbabwe has not been fully harnessed.
The creative industries should be alive, dynamic and vibrant – waiting to be engaged.
Our respective ministries, the Culture Fund, National Arts Council and other cultural entities need to take heed of the importance of the arts and engage meaningfully with the practitioners in these fields.
The priceless heritage our sculptors have bequeathed to this nation and the world needs to be accorded its rightful space in world art history.
Currently, greater attention needs to be harnessed towards intensive indigenous scholarship and understanding of the various concepts, theories, approaches, technique and content that constitute indigenous contemporary art in Zimbabwe.
The act of creativity itself is at the heart of progress and development and is one of the most important pillars for sustainable productivity.
Ultimately, it is creativity that inspires new socio-economic endeavours in our ever-evolving exploration of human development.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD. in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, musician, art critic, practising artist and Corporate Image Consultant. He is also a specialist Art Consultant, Post-Colonial Scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher.