Art, Culture, Books and Travel

ARTISTS IN STONE

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Envisage thousands of football fans visiting Rio de Janeiro during June/July 2014, traipsing up the 250 steps of Corcavado Mountain, (not nearby Sugar Loaf Mountain) to pray for their home team at the foot of Christ the Redeemer. Does anyone realise it took 10 years of planning to create this ultimate vision 72 years ago; first cast in reinforced concrete and then covered in soapstone, it is highly polished soapstone, (or soaprock as some call it), which gives it that creamy, clean gold surface. In China and Egypt stone ornaments and jewellery are not only crafted in green or black soapstone but grey, red, brown. In Alaska soapstone can be white and in China pink!

We all know that it takes eons of water constantly dripping onto fossilised rock to wear it down from its original hard shape into something totally different. So, too, do the Chitungwiza First Generation of Rock Art Carvers of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe’s many other artists, create the smoothest and most beautiful forms that are now being exported to art collectors and museums around the world.

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The tragedy is that the end price is far more than what these artists themselves could ever imagine. Crating and freighting such fragile art is an expensive hobby for the entrepreneur who invests, anxiously ensuring that their heavy cargo ultimately reaches its intended foreign destination intact. (A yacht crew’s worst nightmare is colliding with a submerged container that has slipped off a freighter in rough seas between continents?)

Unlike brush artists who are emotionally involved with different hues, the male and female sculptors of Zimbabwe are guided by the textures of the rock they carve.  They travel far and wide to the rural areas, exploring dry river beds, valleys and mountains in their search to identify the perfect stone. Then hauling their heavy loads onto any available donkey cart and, having paid the owner to hire his rustic vehicle heads for the nearest village.  They now hire a truck to transport the rock by road (or rail) across this part of Africa to their open air workshop, shaded from the hot sun beneath flimsy thatch or shreds of old canvas and plastic shelters.

On arrival at their home base the sculptor, having built up an intimate knowledge of the roots of the stone’s origin, quietly caresses and absorb the spirit of the stone. It may be in limestone, soapstone, serpentine, lepidolite, sheer granite, marble or other but the sculptor will become aware of exactly what it is this ancient rock of ages is to be translated into. This spiritual experience may even have happened immediately as the artist identified the rock hundreds of miles away. Thus inspired by the vision of the spirit, the artist begins to whittle away using the tools of a sculptor’s trade: rasps, lathes, chisels, files and saws.

The National Art Gallery in Harare is considered to contain some of the county’s most outstanding stone carvings, and if you do not believe in the sacred Spirit of the rock art of Zimbabwe, can you explain why it is seldom stolen from the plinths on which the sculptures stand, surrounded in parks and water gardens, and sold on by the would-be thieves? Zimbabweans are in awe of their stone artists.

Bushmen rock art hung for centuries until the Revolution. There is evidence in Wedza, of foreign mercenaries commandeered during the Revolution by the Rhodesia Military who, using their pistols, shot holes into the face of cave walls. Thus dislodged, the ancient Bushman art was carefully caught up into army sleeping bags, and smuggled out overseas to be sold.

The original citadel of Zimbabwe was founded by the Portuguese explorer, Pegado in the 14th century. This was long after it became the Queen of Sheba’s haunt during her hunting trips from Yemen and Ethiopia, in the 10th century.  Strolling with her brace of gold leather-and-diamond studded collared cheetahs in the grounds of The Monument of Great Zimbabwe, how could she know that the shrilling cries of the Peregrine falcons overhead were predicting that within 600 years, the entire country of would be known as Dzimba-dza-Mabwe or Dzimbadzemabwe, translated from the original Karanga dialect, meaning “House of Stone”?  (Read Matthew 7:24)

by Donette Read Kruger

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