Shona sculpture – birth of an international art movement
In 1957, Frank McEwen was appointed as the first curator of the new National Gallery in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). He had previously been curator at the Musée Rodin, Paris and had links with various artists of the time, including Picasso (who was himself heavily influenced by African art) and Matisse.
McEwen was impressed with the talent of some of the artists he met in Zimbabwe, and he encouraged them to paint and later to sculpt. Because of his contacts in the international art world, he was able to give the movement that later became known as ‘Shona sculpture’ (after Zimbabwe’s most numerous tribe) its first international exposure. However, it is not fair to say that he created the movement.
McEwen encouraged the artists to look inward, to find their so-called ‘tribal subconsciousness’ and express it through their art. Much of the early work was inspired by Shona mythology.
Other sculpture locations of interest
During the 1960s, Tom Bloemfield, a white farmer from Tengenenge in northern Zimbabwe, was looking to diversify land use on his farm. Tengenenge is located on the Great Dyke, source of good quality serpentine stone. He set up one the first, and now the largest and best-known, sculpture communities – many famous artists have worked there. (N.B. Guruve is the main town near to Tengenenge.) Other sculpture communities were located at Cyrene Mission near Great Zimbabwe and later at Chapungu Village in the suburbs east of Harare.
Another hub formed around influential artist Joram Mariga, who lived and worked in the Nyanga area of the eastern Highlands, and is revered as ‘the father of Shona sculpture.’ Though Mariga was feted by McEwen, his creativity had already found means of expression, thereby disproving the theory that the art movement was a colonial construct.
World-renowned names emerge
Over the following sixty years, many first- and second-generation artists have become famous worldwide. They are classed among the world’s most talented sculptors.
Names to look out for include:
(the best-known female sculptor)
(was a leading light of the second generation until his untimely suicide in the 1990s)
Collectors include Prince Charles, who opened the first major exhibition in the UK at the Barbican centre in the 1980s, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson!
Shona sculpture gains exposure overseas
Shona sculpture is widely accepted as the most important art movement to emerge from Africa in the twentieth century.
Seminal group exhibitions organised by McEwen during the 1960s-1970s period include Musée Rodin, Paris, France and at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, UK.
Shona sculpture is very popular in the United States and Continental Europe, but it is less well known in the UK. General awareness of the art form in the UK was increased substantially by a high profile exhibition in 2000 at Kew Gardens in London, organised by Chapungu, featuring major works by many of the big names.
The future of Shona sculpture
There is a new generation of amazingly talented artists working in Zimbabwe today, some still in their teens but already showing great promise. A new Arts Centre was established with UNDP and Government Education Department funding, specifically to provide promising young artists with a stable base where they could develop their skills. With their new urban influences, these young artists are building on the old school of ‘Shona sculpture‘ and creating a new modern style.
After 20 years of immersion in the art movement, we consider ourselves world experts in this niche world of Zimbabwean Shona stone sculpture. We have invested our energy and enthusiasm into a new project, on the ground in Harare, with the opening in 2016 of our new gallery, the Shona Sculpture Gallery.