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Hard facts about the precise order of the events are difficult to place, but it is suggested in discussions with the earliest artists that Frank McEwen encouraged the technigues of sculpture after seeing early work by men as Joram Mariga who, at that time had broken away from the use of soft stones and was experimenting with harder materials and more individualistic expression and themes. It must be remembered that there was already carving of a sort in Zimbabwe in the Fifties and Sixties.

As is true now, there was stone work for sale to tourists - realistic interpretations of the wildlife, in the main produced in soft soapstone. Concurrent with the arrival of McEwen to the country's new National Gallery, it seems that a handful of carvers were independently breaking away from the established forms of carving and experimenting on their own. This new work seems to have ignited McEwen's enthusiasm and imagination and led to his assuming the role of encourager and 'director".

Such artists initially brought their work to the National Gallery for selection and sale and McEwen, as often, would visit their 'studios' to guide, comment and initiate the relationships from which the movement was to be born (...)

A discussion with one of the founding sculptors will reveal the difficulties faced by McEwen and his artists; the lack of space and the basic equipment with which they worked. Progress was slow and, in the beginning, very uninspiring. In a room allocated for storage at the back of the new National Gallery, McEwen supplied interested artists with materials that were available and encouraged them to experiment - in most cases with painting.

Despite the difficulties, McEwen quickly knew that here was enormous potential. Word spread amongst the local people and within a few years increasing numbers attended the Workshop School, or alternatively brought their own work from areas such as Nyanga and Bulawayo. There is, now, much debate about Frank McEwen's precise role within this informal 'school'. He defends his position using the theories of Moreau, in which he strongly believed.

"Finally, up to 75 artists would come and go as and when they could. There was not a trace of art school mentality. No teaching but an atmosphere of individual drawing outtas Gustave Moreau had propounded and Henri Matisse and others had explained to me. Obviously, there must be an aura of vibrant art content to be drawn out. "

In 1958 the National Gallery hosted its First Annual Federal Art Exhibition. Work from all over Rhodesia was submitted for selection, including painting, sculpture, design and objects d'art. The resulting exhibition of some 150 pieces set the foundations for an annual showcase of local talent (European and indigenous). As such it became an important 'tool' with which McEwen defended his belief in the value of involving local people and encouraging local artistic abilities. This was no amateurish jamboree, but instead a rigorously selected display of startling expression - an insistent voice which demanded attention and which, within a few years, excited serious interest from the most important art centres of the world. Work by artists from McEwen's Workshop School was shown alongside that of established artists. Painting was extremely strong within the School but it soon became clear that the medium with which the African artists worked most freely and imaginatively was stone.

As the years passed, stone sculpture assumed an increasingly strong presence in the exhibitions and significant purchases were made for the Galley's permanent collection as well as for its international exhibitions. The catalogues from these early annual exhibitions make for interesting reading. With each exhibition McEwen argues and provides evidence for the work to be taken seriously - not so much with an international audience as this seemed to happen from the first - but with the national establishment.

Despite this, international interest was growing and art experts such as Alfred Barr, Tristan Tzara, Michel Leiris, John Russell, Roland Penrose and William Fagg Began to visit Rhodesia and examine the origins of the work. In 1971, McEwen organised a critical exhibition in the Musee Rodin, in Paris. This show was responsible for the serious assessment of the sculpture by the established art world. Virtually every piece was bought by collectors and art lovers: some of which remain in important collections today. It seemed that, for the first time, the work could stand by itself in the face of scrutiny - with no defence or explanation other than that required to satisfy the interest of the uninitiated. The source of the work was respected and acclaimed and the sculpture itself was hailed as a potential influence on the world art scene.

Other important exhibitions were to follow, chiefly Shona Sculptures of Rhodesia held in 1972 at the I.C.A. Gallery, London and a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also in 1972. These received tremendous critical acclaim and marked the beginning of acknowledgement of the sculpture as a serious genre.

McEwen's role as spiritual 'leader' and, to some extent, 'protector' of the movement continued to the end of his Directorship in 1973. Soon after the initial interest from international collectors and organisations, McEwen sought a new venue for his Workshop School. Fearful of commercial pressures on the young work, he enlisted the help of sculptor, Sylvester Mubayi in establishing a rural community in the powerful environment of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe - the Nyanga district - and named it Vukutu.

"In Vukutu, an ancient sanctuary of great beauty and complete isolation, surrounded by sculpture-like rocks, our best artists came to live in an art community. They hunted for pure food according to their belief in life-force. Here they produced their finest work away from the encroaching tourist trade. It was the best move we ever made. "

Other centres of encouragement and creativity existed, including the artistic teaching at two mission schools - Serima and Cyrene However, a quite separate and different community of sculptors.

Tengenenge, was founded by Tom Blomefield, in the late sixties in the North East of Zimbabwe. Blomefield had been a tobacco farmer in Guruve who, through the pressures of international sanctions after Ian Smith's Declaration of Unilateral Independence (UDI), was no longer able to provide reliable employment for his farm workers - many of whom had travelled to Zimbabwe from Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola. In an effort to continue his support for these men and their families he encouraged them to make the change from farm labouring to art. The land on which the community was sited included an impressive natural deposit of hard, carveable Serpentine and it was to be stone carving for which his men became respected and applauded over the following twenty years. Frank McEwen and the National Gallery supported this community for several years, before the establishment of its own rural Workshop at Vukutu. Tengenenge then continued on its own path and still thrives today. As expressed in the quotation by Ulli Beier, about Frank McEwen, Blomefield had a similar, remarkable, ability to foster and extract latent talent from artistically untrained people. Like McEwen, he too has an infectious enthusiasm and gift of inspiring others, if not to create, then to would not have come about were it not for more these qualities. The two men, however, could not have had more different backgrounds and experiences on which to base their theories. With no artistic training and very little knowledge of the arts, Blomefield nevertheless felt passionately about the natural creative potential within the African people in Zimbabwe. Within an unshakeable (some would say naive) belief in the ability to live by simple means and personal resources in times of hardship, he displayed immense courage in implementing his ambitions.

He first asked to be shown how to sculpt - approaching Chrispen Chakanuka. (...). After a short time of experimentation and hard work, he felt able to encourage anyone interested within the community around him. From such simple beginnings a movement was created which bore testimony to his beliefs and ideals. With similar, but less stringent guidelines as those practised by McEwen, he encouraged the emerging artists of Tengenenge to search their souls and create whatever they felt drawn to. He offered basic 'criticism' and advice if asked but in the main saw his role as a source of support. It is unquestionably due to this sensitive attitude that such extraordinary and unique talents found their expression: Lemon Moses, Bernard Matemera, Josiah Manzi, Wazi Maicolo, Amali Malola, Henry Munyaradzi, Sylvester Mubayi, Fanizani Akuda.

Some sculptors moved from the community to work on their own, or to join McEwen's various groups - but all benefited incalculably from Blomefield's generous spirit and sense of good.(...)

Difficulties within the country also heightened at this time and a ten-year internal struggle finally led to Independence for the new Zimbabwe in l980. The years of war represented an extremely difficult period for the sculptors. Many abandoned their art and returned to more conventional activities; many were unable to work in the rural areas as these became increasingly dangerous.(...)

So it was then, that the responsibilities of the private promoters became more important. During the war years it was almost impossible to exhibit or sell work and individuals such as Roy Guthrie could only encourage and financially support the artists by purchasing works for the future exposure they believed possible in more peaceful times. Through this process Guthrie established strong friendships with the major artist of the time (John Takawira, Sylvester Mubayi, Joseph Ndandarika, Joram Mariga, Henry Munyaradzi. Bernard Takawira, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Boira Mteki, Bernard Matemera), and at the first opportunity, began to organise definitive exhibitions abroad. These, in turn, aroused international interest that had existed previously and provided new impetus for the established artists as well as encouraging fresh, younger talent.

Important exhibitions in these years of recovery and renewal were:

Shona Sculpture, Zimbabwe House, London, England (1981);

Stein Skulpturen Aus Zimbabwe, Zoological Garden Museum, Frankfurt, Germany (1983,1984 and 1985);

Contemporary Stone Sculpture from Zimbabwe, Irving Sculpture Gallery, Sydney, Australia;

Stone Sculpture from Zimbabwe, Margam Castle, West Glamorgan, Wales (1986).

During the first six years after Independence, Roy Guthrie's Gallery Shona Sculpture ( later to become the Chapungu Sculpture Park) was responsible for all the major international exposure of the sculpture. The preservation of important works for the cultural heritage of Zimbabwe is an ongoing commitment for Chapungu Sculpture Park, as is the essential documentation of both the sculpture and artists.

As a result of recent exhibitions, much has been written and published about the stone sculpture movement. Additionally, interest in the work of younger generations of Zimbabwean sculptors is now shown by international audiences - in art historical terms work has now been produced by second and third igenerations' . The sculpture has taken new direction and tackled different issues than those of the 'founding' artists and it is wit this new talent that the future of the shona sculpture movement lies.

Breaking free from the accepted images of ancient, tribal African art, audiences are invited to view this work with an open heart and mind and take what relevance they may for their lives, wherever in the world they may be. Surely this is the purpose of Art?

source: "Chapungu: The Stone Sculptures of Zimbabwe" - Mawdsley, Joceline.


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