Zimbabwean stone sculpture is a singular phenomenon in the context of African art. It is impossible to compare it with art from any other African country. Much of this style’s singularity rests in its history. Rather than developing out of a tradition, it emerged all on its own out of a vacuum. And within thirty years it faded away into the anonymity of trinket mass production. It’s fair to say that this art form has now disappeared.

This sudden rise and fall can be pinned back to the particular circumstances arising out of Zimbabwe’s history. In the 1950s Southern Rhodesia – as Zimbabwe was then called – became the stage for a relatively liberal multiracial experiment, at least in cultural terms. The capital Harare saw the establishment of a university and a National Gallery, which was first directed by Frank McEwan from the UK. His part in the development of this new art form is immeasurable. In 1930s Paris he had seen how much ethnic African art inspired modern European painting and sculpture. In Rhodesia, he wanted to unearth the roots of this art and thus to unleash Africa’s creative potential. This could be done by exploiting Rhodesia ’s open climate to promote indigenous art, which he thought was still uncorrupted.

It is not my aim to argue that there was no previous Zimbabwean sculpting tradition. But a quick glance at the last 2,000 years of Africa’s history of art shows that the whole of Southern Africa had little in the way of artefacts compared to West and Central Africa. It was too sparsely populated and had no massive kingdoms, whose power could be seen represented in its art. Only Great Zimbabwe, Monomutapa’s kingdom, had cultic stone eagle figures, but its sculpting tradition perished with the kingdom. In its desire to strengthen the nation’s cultural heritage the postcolonial government invented a link between this past tradition and contemporary sculpting. Art dealers have jumped on this bandwagon by frequently making use of this fictitious connection for marketing purposes. After all, it is far easier to sell “typically African” art.

With McEwan’s considerable inspiration and encouragement a scene of young and talented African stone sculptors started developing in the 60s. Joram Mariga, John Takawira, Henry Munyaradzi, Nicholas Mukomberanwa and Joseph Ndandarika were among the first, and they later became the leading figures in this new movement. McEwan demanded of the young artists they create art for its own sake. They were told to draw inspiration from their inner imagery and the mythology of their Shona people. The term Shona Sculpture was born.

In 1965 the first exhibition abroad was held. In 1968 pieces were put on display at an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art. International recognition came with the special exhibition at the Musée Rodin in Paris. The subjects shown in these early works were unquestionably African. The frequently anthropomorphic figures symbolised the belief in the original union of man and animal. They were often “archaic” or “primitive” and were reminiscent of Aztec, Mayan, and Inuit art. Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to speak of a unified style.

Quite the contrary, the most important artists developed their own distinctive styles over the years. Henry Munyaradzi’s minimalist representation of the human head reminds us of Paul Klee. Nicholas Mukomberanwa’s work reveals cubist influences. And John Takawira’s style revolves around an expressive dissolution of contours. The exhibitions at the National Gallery, which displayed pieces by Pablo Picasso, Roger Moore and other European modernists, as well as ethnic African art, must have influenced the artists. So to argue over whether the sculptures of the time were typically African or not is pure sophistry. They were certainly neither traditional nor modern in the strict sense. They were something special – a synthesis or experiment – they were nothing other than Zimbabwe Stone Sculpture.

Frank McEwan relied on genuine inspiration drawn from the wealth of the collective subconscious and thus declined to train the artists. Instead, he tried to shield them from the increasing temptations of commercialisation. He discarded bad work as “airport art” (many really were destroyed) and moved his Workshop School to the countryside. In 1965 the white settler colony made its Universal Declaration of Independence from the British Crown. Consequently, international sanctions were imposed, which isolated Rhodesia both economically and culturally. But this proved to be a blessing for this infant art form. The young artists were given the chance to mature fully without undiscerning tourists buying and thus encouraging work of lower quality. Simultaneously, “Shona Sculpture’s” growing reputation and initial interest from collectors gave the best sculptors the material basis to establish themselves as professional artists who not only lived from their art, but also for it.

The fruits were reaped after the country’s independence in 1980. The movement reached its peak in the 80s, which is when it also started its decline. The many exhibitions abroad brought the greatest exponents to fame and encouraged them to experiment further and to produce work in larger formats. New tools, especially harder chisels, meant that artists could work harder stones like springstone, lepidolite, and verdite. It also became easier to break gaps into the stone.

Younger artists joined the movement and brought new impulses. For example, Tapfuma Gutsa who had studied Art in London , worked in mixed media and frequently combined stone and wood in his elegant pieces. Brighton Sango’s sculptures were abstract. They no longer had anything to do with “African” imagery. The term “Shona Sculpture” became unpopular with art connoisseurs as well as some artists. It almost seemed as though Zimbabwean sculpture had become alive enough to move on.

However, after Independence the problems started setting in. It became increasingly obvious that Zimbabwean sculpture was neither traditional nor typically African and it was not even rooted in the country. The local press provided neither an audience nor critical feedback. Even the new affluent elite was not interested in what the country’s most renowned artistic representatives abroad had to offer. The large annual exhibitions at the National Gallery may have been called National Heritage Exhibitions, but there were no real artistic traditions to fall back on in the name of the nation. Year after year the quality of work went down, though did this nothing to stop curators from putting more and more pieces on show.

Simple market mechanisms took effect. Several galleries settled in the capital, offering anything that was palatable to the growing number of tourists. With rising prices and turnover, more and more young and untalented Zimbabweans started to replicate anything that would sell. The result was a lamentable decline in quality and lasting damage to the whole movement’s reputation. This trend towards airport art continued in the 90s. The economy’s comprehensive decline left both the urban and rural African population in poverty. Those who had no work tried to stay afloat in the informal sector. And thus pieces were serially produced. What could best be described as handy craft, not to say cheap kitsch, flooded the market and terminally undermined what had developed thus far.

We now have the distance to look back on the Zimbabwean stone sculpture movement. Most of the leading artists from the early years have died. And a generation of younger artists with work of equal artistic quality and creativity was unable to develop in the circumstances described above. The time was too short and the movement too small for it to establish itself as the country’s art. It failed to integrate continuity and change, artistic autonomy and simultaneous references to its cultural and social environment, crucial in maintaining its vitality. Finding very little resonance in its own culture, production was dominated by commercial interests and tourists’ expectations. And so this became a further example of how the Zimbabwean situation mirrors that of other African countries.

Pieces by the leading representatives of the early period seem all the more valuable. It was their quality that earnt Zimbabwean stone sculpture its international reputation. The originality and distinctiveness of artists like Nicholas Mukonberanwa, John Takawira, and Henry Munyaradzi is undeniable, even if their work is based on a syncretism which arises out of the ambivalent fusion of African tradition and European modernism. It creates the impression of both the familiar and the strange. Since the movement collapsed, these pieces have only reached the market through private collections. I built up my collection while living in Zimbabwe from 1982 to 1993 where I served as the director of the Zimbabwe-German Society. In assembling this collection I focused on the renowned artists of the first generation and those works by other artists of exceptional individual quality. What I am offering here is a cross section of this collection.

Volker Wild