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They inspired Picasso, will they inspire you?

  • October 31, 2003

By Kakiseni

You may have seen them in interior design shops around Kuala Lumpur. Slick, unusual, primitive and very contemporary at the same time, they are sculptures from Zimbabwe introduced to Malaysia by a Zimbabwean couple, Mary Jane and Charles Cormack, who wanted to share their love for their country.

They are also the sculptures about which Picasso said in an interview in 1987 “All I need to know about Africa is in these objects”.

The bad press about Zimbabwe doesn’t stop Charles flying there every three months to visit sculptors and buy new works of art for a growing Malaysian market.

He tells us more about the sculptors, and how every stone has an image within it that the artist has to liberate.

Can you tell us about Shona sculpture?

Shona sculpture is a unique form of stone sculpture developed by the Shona people of Zimbabwe, a small country in the southern region of Africa. It is a contemporary manifestation of the Shona peoples’ culture, spirit and soul, permanently captured in some of the most beautiful stone to be found anywhere in the world

Is this a very recent phenomenon?

Not exactly, there is evidence of the Shona people engaging in stone sculpture right back to the 15th century but it is only since the 1960’s that this amazing art form was really noticed by the international community. Since then, Shona sculpture has become world renowned, particularly in Europe, America and Japan. There is a permanent exhibition in the New York Museum of Modern Art and frequent exhibitions in London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and many other cities. It is only more recently that this sculpture has started to make its presence felt in Asia.

Who are the artists?

There are many artists expressing themselves in stone and often several members of the same family become sculptors. Many of today’s young up and coming artists are the grand children of the early 60’s artists who first put this art form on the map – these are the so-called third generation artists. In Zimbabwe, a number of art communities have been established where young artists can go to “train”, largely through working along side the well-established sculptors. The movement has an established and extremely strong pedigree with 5 of the top 10 sculptors in the world being recognised as coming from the Shona tribe. There are also several prominent female artists and more and more women are taking to sculpting

What is the subject matter and inspiration of these sculptures?

The sculptures are mostly abstract and contemporary interpretations of everyday objects, which form part of the artists’ lives. The Shona people are extremely spiritual and therefore they often draw on tribal beliefs and culture to give a subject a more unusual aspect or twist. Each Shona family has a totem which is a sacred object, animal or plant and an artist will often incorporate some aspect of this totem in all of his work thereby forming a common theme which runs through all an individuals pieces of that artist, whatever the subject may be.

How are they carved?

Unlike most western sculptors, Zimbabwean artists directly confront a piece of stone by hand, without first having made a sketch, outline or image on paper, although they will occasionally draw directly onto the stone before carving it. The artists believe that every piece of stone already has hidden within it the work of art that it wants to be. By accepting the challenge of sculpting a given stone the artist is merely working to release this inherent beauty.

Only hand tools are used to carve the stone such as; hammer and chisel, files and sandpaper. Even these hand tools are very basic with the result that larger sculptures will take many months to complete.

What stone is used?

Zimbabwe has been blessed with an abundance of some of the most interesting, beautiful and mineral rich rock formations found anywhere in the world. Most of the stone used for sculpting is variations of serpentinite and is approximately 1600 million years old. This corresponds to the very birth of the planet and way before any form of life on earth, never mind the dinosaurs. By comparison the oldest rock formations found in Malaysia are a mere 500 millions year old. These Shona sculptures are some of the oldest objects on the planet.

The serpentinite used comes in a staggering variety of colours, hardness and textures – sometime with considerable variation in the same piece of stone. The colours are caused by infusions of minerals such as iron, magnesium and copper in differing crystal formations.

The stone most commonly used for sculpting is locally referred to as Springstone. It is an extremely hard black stone, with the occasional brown infusion, which gives it tremendous character. Springstone takes its name from the fact that the hand tools used to carve it tend to “spring” or bounce off the stone without even marking it.

Other common stones used are the rich translucent green Opal stone and Serpentine, which can be found in a wide variety of colours from black to rich earthy brown, green or even a range of yellows. Small sculptures are also sometimes created from semi precious stones such as the beautiful iridescent green Verdite and Leopard stone, which also comes in a wide variety of colours.

Can these sculptures be placed outdoors?

Yes, definitely. As the natural stone has already faced the elements for billions of years the finished sculptures are well adapted to the outdoors. They are very low maintenance and only require occasional dustings. Also, as the stone is non-porous these sculptures will not go green and slimy over time.

Where are they available?

Shona sculptures are currently stocked at Courtyard, Claycraft, Lotus Arte, House + Co, Urban Culture (Ampang) and X-Tra in Kuala Lumpur and Purser’s Choice in Penang.

What is the price range?

Sculptures start from as little as RM120 for a small simple piece to RM8000 or more for a very large piece over a meter high. Whilst the price is dependent on size and stone type the reputation of the individual artist is also a key factor.

Are these collectors’ items?

Well, Queen Elizabeth, Rockefeller, Picasso and the Rothschild family are all collectors so you would be in good company.

First Published: 31.10.2003 on Kakiseni