Sculpture of the People of the Mist

Juliet Highet

In Zimbabwe, the Shona people are traditionally known as “the People of the Mist”, since they once inhabited the mist-shrouded Inyanga Mountains, from whose stone their descendants have been creating extraordinary sculpture over the last 55 years or so.

The oldest ethnic group in the country, Shona are the legendary guardians of King Solomon’s mines. The essence of their misty land and its spiritual world is deep within their psyche and still relevant. The belief is that each one of the rocks on the Inyanga slopes contains a spirit unique to that stone. They are wonderfully varied in colour, like mauve lapidolite, leopard rock, semi-precious green verdite, and the black, hard serpentine and springstone.

As an exhibition review in a London newspaper put it recently, “Shona sculpture is of world quality, extracting the individual spirit of the stone.” In 1988, Newsweek magazine went as far as saying that “Shona sculpture is perhaps the most important art form to emerge from Africa this century. Prince Charles has become a collector. Richard Attenborough (the film director) came to Zimbabwe and before leaving, shipped 29 crates of Shona pieces home.”

Both historic and modern sculptors have created images of the Bateleur eagle, Chapungu, a sacred messenger, which became a powerful national symbol during Zimbabwe’s independence. In the past, a member of each Shona family was a muvesi or carver, empowered by a mudzimu, a special ancestral spirit who manifested in dreams. The heritage, particularly of dream inspiration, is embedded in the work of modern Shona sculptors, though theirs is clearly no longer for functional purposes.

The present art movement surged into public consciousness in the early 1960s with the encouragement of Frank McEwen, the first director of the National Gallery in Harare. Sculptors formed a workshop at the gallery, selling their work there, and fairly soon began to exhibit abroad. Major artists who made their mark at the Gallery Workshop include Joram Mariga, John Takawira, Joseph Ndandarika, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, and Thomas Mukarobgwa.

Now, a second generation of urban artists has gained recognition, based in Harare or establishing themselves in Europe. These include Gedion Nyanhongo, Joe Mutasa and many more. Just as their forbears did, contemporary Zimbabwean sculptors usually begin their work with inspiration from a dream or daydream/meditation, carving natural or mythical forms. The spiritual pantheon includes the fertility and rain god, Mwari, and many other spirits inhabiting nature. The inner vision is transfused with calm, considered action into the stone, until the ‘thought’ or inspiration is apparent there, in harmony with the spirit of the stone.

About the author:

Juliet Highet is an author and photographer on travel, the arts and culture


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International