The first thing that strikes you at Rwavhi Fine Art in Parkview, Johannesburg, is the huge wood sculpture outside. In the garden there are more sculptures, inviting viewers to pause for appreciation.
In Faces at Rwavhi Gallery, an exhibition running until mid-December, 30 Zimbabwean stone sculptors are showing their work.
Arthur Manyengedzo is one of them. “I learnt stone sculpturing from my auntie,” he says. “I have been doing it for 20 years, having started in 1996.
“I have exhibited in Zimbabwe, including at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. My work has also been shown in the US, Europe, Australia and Canada.”
Manyengedzo has an international reputation as an accomplished third-generation sculptor and his work is sought-after, especially in the UK, Canada and Germany.
Zimbabwe’s stone sculptors have the ability to carve a face out of rock in a myriad ways, be it human, spirit, fish or fowl. In the past decade, the country’s artists have had to endure political turmoil, economic upheaval and great hardship.
Unemployment is at 90% and there is a crippling shortage of money in the country.
In the face of this, stone sculpting is a crucible for the artists’ creative energies, with the artists carving their imaginations into sculptures that are powerful, moving and transcendent.
At first sight, Manyengedzo’s six sculptures on exhibition seem to avoid dealing with the unstable political situation in his country.
“I am not avoiding touching on politics in my work,” he says. “The theme of my work, which is love, is actually a political theme. I am saying that for us to move forward and have peace as a country, we need to develop love for one another.
“Once there is love for fellow Zimbabweans, the political tension is defused. Love is bigger than anything.”
His sculptures are entitled Together as One, Dance of Love, Tango, Life Embraced, Seen it All and My Mentor.
“As an artist, I have hope that one day Zimbabwe will rise and be great again. That is very much possible as I know we cannot remain where we are as a country,” he says.
“Something will give and that will unlock the keys to both economic and political success in Zimbabwe. We will once again be able to defuse the tension. With love for fellow human beings, anything is possible.”
Some other internationally established artists featured in this exhibition are Charles Nembaware of the Svikiro Sculpture Collective; Peter Makuwise from Nyanga; Nesbert Masunda, who apprenticed under the late Nicholas Mukomberanwa, a founding member of the sculpture movement in Zimbabwe; Walter Mariga, 2016 resident artist at the Rice Lake gallery in Canada; and Lovemore Bonjisi, who is widely recognised as Zimbabwe’s modern-day Michelangelo.
Zimbabwe is one of the few countries in Africa that has large deposits of serpentine stone, which is suitable for sculpting. It ranges in hardness and in colour — from black to light blue, yellow and green. The stone is between 50-and 300-million years old, some of the oldest rock on the planet.
The ancient tradition of stone carving in Zimbabwe dates back to the 13th century.
The totemic bird sculptures and ruins of Great Zimbabwe are evidence of the stonemasonry skills of the great Shona empires (1250-1450).
The tradition of stone sculpting was rekindled in 1957 when the then curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Frank McEwen, invited hardwood sculptors from the mountainous Nyanga region to a workshop at the gallery in Harare.
McEwen, through his friendships with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger, showcased Shona sculpture in Paris, London and New York in the 1960s and 1970s,
The early sculptors — Joram Mariga, Bernard Matemera, Mukomberanwa and others are known as the first generation of stone sculptors. Their work has been compared to that of the great 20th century sculptors of the western world — Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi and Amedeo Modigliani.
Few of Zimbabwe’s stone sculptors have had the benefit of formal art training.
The first-generation artists looked to their traditional culture for inspiration.
Because the majority of the sculptors were Shona, the art movement was initially known as the Shona sculpture movement. Now, however, there are several sculptors from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia who also work in stone, and they have enriched the movement with their cultural input.
Today it is a distinctly modern art form that takes inspiration from contemporary life and politics as well as traditional and spiritual beliefs.
“I am excited to have had the opportunity to come here and speak about my work and that of fellow Zimbabweans taking part in Faces who unfortunately could not make it to SA for the opening of the exhibition,” Manyengedzo says.
“My work has been exhibited in SA before, but this is the first time I have had an opportunity to physically be here.”
Rwavhi Fine Art, founded by former broadcast journalist Carolyn Dempster, has been representing Zimbabwe’s third-generation stone sculptors in SA since 2006.
• Faces at Rwavhi Gallery, 58 Roscommon Road, Parkview, until December 11.