By Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe
MVURWI, ZIMBABWE — Sitting atop a large serpentine stone, his back slightly curved, Passmore Mupindiko continually hammers his chisel until ashy fragments fall away and the shape of a mermaid appears. Close by, a vehicle pulls up to drop off more large stone sculptures, briefly drowning out the sculptor’s hammering.
These sculptures are added to others already lined up for sale at Mvurwi Art Centre. The gallery, which opened its doors in 2013, is one of four that sells local sculptures in the Mvurwi area north of Harare.
Colorful tags indicate which of the sculptures await pickup by a buyer who purchased the works earlier in the day, and this sale brings hope to the sculptors after a dry stretch.
“It’s been three or four months with no sales; sometimes we go up to six months with no sales,” says Benjamin Musendami, the center’s vice chairman.
Many Zimbabwean sculptors, like those at the Mvurwi Art Centre, are struggling. The majority of the center’s buyers are outside the country, and business has been declining over the years, says Tutani Mgabazi, who chairs the center.
Although government statistics show international tourism in Zimbabwe grew by 4.4 percent in 2015 — the sixth consecutive year of above-average growth, with 1.18 million visitors — Mgabazi says few made it to the center to buy sculptures.
When buyers do come, Mgabazi says, they negotiate minimal prices and resell the sculptures in Europe, the United States and Asia for exorbitant amounts.
“Some pieces can be bought for $20 here, and when it’s at an upmarket exhibition in Europe, it could be sold for $800 to $1,000,” he says.
The sculptures are more celebrated internationally than at home and are known both for the serpentine stone from which they are carved and for the Shona spiritual heritage attached to the carvings, says curator Raphael Chikukwa.
Serpentine is mined in the Great Dyke, a 500-kilometer (310-mile) horseshoe ridge formed over billions of years, stretching from the north and east and around to the center of the country.
Stone sculpture in Zimbabwe is notable back at least to the 11th century as it was used in constructing the Great Zimbabwe, a ruined city in southeastern Masvingo region that is now a national monument and a UNESCO heritage site. Building the monument entailed placing multiple stones on top of one another, culminating in the shape of a house. The name Zimbabwe, in one translation, means “houses of stone.”
Relying heavily on overseas markets for sales, some sculptors say they face various problems that result in underpayment for their work in a field that has the potential to generate millions.
“Art is the height of investment,” says lawyer and sculptor David Ngwerume. “Those who buy art now can sell it years later at a better price.”
Meanwhile, he says, the majority of artists are struggling to break even. Mgabazi, the art center chairman, has resorted to running a clothing shop with his wife, as well as a grocery mini-mart. Previously, he could cover his expenses from sculpting.
“We know of art dealers who came promising to develop artists in Zimbabwe, but the dealers are now millionaires. They are now millionaires because they use simple tricks; they take advantage of an uncontrolled situation,” says Ngwerume.
Tangai Njanji from Chitungwiza says he stopped sculpting because of the low pay and now works with a Zimbabwe-based Korean exporter.
”I haven’t been sculpting for some time, because sculpting is like working for free compared to what I am doing now. The Korean businessman says, ‘Make me rich and I’ll also make you rich,’” Njanji says.
Buyers capitalize on the difficult economic situation in Zimbabwe, Njanji says, by approaching sculptors toward the end of the month, when the artists have bills to pay and it’s likely they will take less.
“We just shipped out about 139 big pieces to South Korea. If the pieces are smaller, we take about 300 pieces in a 40-foot container,” Njanji adds.
Chikukwa argues that the ease with which sculptures leave the country is to blame — a problem made worse by revenue collectors who say art does not contribute to the nation’s income.
Sculptors also face the challenge of fraudulent duplication.
Fabian Madamombe says the sculptures of his late wife, Colleen Madamombe, were duplicated following her death in 2009.
“A lot of people are copying my late wife’s sculptures; they go as far as putting her name on the sculptures, and buyers capitalize by paying lower prices for her established name,” says Madamombe.
In 2004, Zimbabwe adopted the Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act to cover copyrights on literary works and traditional cultural expressions, including sculpture. But most artists said they were unaware of it.
Sculptor Dominic Benhura took a step to address duplication of his work by pursuing a court case, S v Chiadzwa (HH 28-2004) ZWHHC, but he says it demonstrated the difficulty of proving copyright violations. After Benhura had spent thousands of dollars on hiring a lawyer and other expenses of the six-month trial, the judge charged the perpetrator a $50 fine.
“I was the one who was responsible for picking up the police, picking up the exhibits, then going to drop them; you lose a lot of time and money,” says Benhura.
Benhura, who refuses to sell his sculptures for less than $500 each, says artists should prioritize uniqueness in their works and not cut corners in the hopes of making quick sales.
Cho also explains that expenses are incurred in selling sculptures overseas, a task that should be taken into consideration in understanding how pricing is determined.
“If a sculpture is bought for $100, and it is sold outside the country for say $1,000, it is because an exhibition is held to sell sculptures, and $1,200 or $1,500 is paid for space,” he says. Besides the shipping costs, at least three people work to sell the sculptures and must be paid a commission.
“The artists know, and they don’t complain,” he says.
The Rev. Paul Bayethe Damasane, principal director at the Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture, says the government will soon release a major policy that will do more to promote and protect Zimbabwean artists.
Many sculptors, he says, lose money to middle men. “Can we blame [the buyer]? Yes and no,” he says. “No, because we have sold the product ourselves; he didn’t come to steal it. Yes, it is true that they are also stealing from us, in the sense that they actually know the actual end value and they do not disclose that.”
The new National Arts, Culture and Heritage Policy, formulated over several years, is designed to be implemented in 2017 and will address different aspects of the art value chain, such as production, distribution and consumption, Damasane says.
It also includes export control mechanisms and training of artists in entrepreneurship, he says.