About sixty years ago emerged in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), a new and powerful art movement, centering around hand-made stone sculpture, and especially stone monoliths.
Initially known as “Shona Sculpture”, as the first generation of artists belonged to this tribe, it is today known as “Zimbabwe Sculpture” as the sculptors come from different tribes and even from neighbor countries, Malawi, Mozambique, etc.
It took many years for this traditional African Art to receive recognition and later to be converted into what we now call “Contemporary African Art”. The artists had a “Father” as they used to call McEwen, who was the catalyst and the founder of Stone Sculpture movement.
In 1954, the white Rhodesian Government planned to build a new gallery and an English man, Frank McEwen who at first acted as a consultant, and two years later became the director of the National Gallery. His task was to create a collection of artworks from the developing world, but he quickly realized the potential of the indigenous people around him, and started what he called a “Workshop School” which was clandestinely situated in the basement of the gallery. During his childhood Frank McEwen had been surrounded by art as his father was a great art collector. He lived for many years in Paris and was a student at the Sorbone. His love for genuine creativity was later endorsed by the teachings of Gustave Moreau, “True art should emanate from a person’s spirit and natural desire to create”.
He ran the first exhibitions of Henry Moore, and also organized exhibitions of famous impressionist painters in London.
Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Braque and Leger were his closed friends. McEwen was extremely upset about the Paris art scene which he described as the “Age of triviality”. His flamboyant personality and his ability to create, helped to encourage this “New form of African art”, as he called it. Soon after the initial interest from international collectors and organizations, McEwen settled his workshop school in a natural environment called Vukutu, in an attempt to protect the indigenous culture and identity from the corrosive effects of globalisation.
In 1971 he organized an exhibition in the Museé Rodin in Paris, and in the following year similar exhibitions in London and New York. The Stone Sculpture was finally being recognized as an art form in its own right.
Despite the international success and the recognition of the stone sculpture, the Rhodesian Government forced McEwen to resign from his post in 1973.
The other important pioneer in the discovery of this art form was Tom Blomefield.
Tom Blomefield, came from Durban in South Africa, and was the owner of a tobacco farm situated in the north of Harare, called Tengenenge, which means “The beginning of the beginning” in Chewa, a language that he speaks fluently.
In 1966 due to the international sanctions against Rhodesia he suddenly realized that he would not be able to continue to provide employment for his workers. As the Tengenenge land was quite close to a huge deposit of hard serpentine and as most of his workers had a certain natural talent and skill at carving wood, Tom Blomefield had the brilliant idea to make the move from farming to carving. He encouraged them to make sculpture in stone with the same dexterity as they had had with wood. Starting with mask and figures related to their traditions, their past and their culture without censure or limitations.
The environment of Tengenenge has raised a lot of great sculptors and at the same time become part of the commerce of art from East to West. With the retirement of Tom Blomefield, Tengenenge is being run today by Zimbabwe’s most internationally recognized sculptor, Dominic Benhura.
Roy Guthrie, is the third character and “the man” who continued to support and pay tribute to McEwen and Tom Blomefield. He was the founder of Chapungu Sculpture Park (1970). Guthrie had a complicated role to play as this period of creativity was interrupted for 10 years by international pressure and internal conflict. This time of struggle came to an end with the establishment of independence 1980.
During this harsh time, he encouraged and helped the artists to continue to create and to deal with poverty, hunger and the difficulties of this restless time.
Thanks to his perseverance and the natural and powerful creativity of the artists, today’s important collection at Chapungu represents a sculptural heritage which has had an essential impact on the second and third generations of young sculptors.
Stone Sculpture today has a crucial place in the contemporary African art scene.