In the 1950’s, in what is now modern day Zimbabwe and then Southern Rhodesia, the Southern Rhodesian government engaged in instituting a National Gallery to house a collection of Western art. A committee was formed and the search began for a consultant who would guide this endeavor. Frank McEwen had become an established art critic and art instructor in Paris. He was the first and only choice for the position. While he was in Paris he developed relationships with some of the great twentieth century artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Miro to list a few.

McEwen was intrigued with the idea of introducing modern art forms to “primitive” people. He was obsessed with this idea many years before he was invited to Rhodesia. Once the construction of the National Gallery was complete he was chosen as its first director. During his term he established a workshop in which he taught painting and then sculpting to native Rhodesians, a dream come true.

The Shona were and still are the largest tribe in what is now Zimbabwe. Following Jungian philosophy he encouraged the artists in his workshop to use traditional myth and folklore as the subject and inspiration for their art, coupled with their own individual style. McEwen’s focus on Shona mythology lead him to label his students creations as “Shona sculpture”. Ironically, not all of the artists in the workshop were Shona or even from Zimbabwe. Therefore, it is problematic to treat this concept as nothing more than a generic label. In addition, this label can be misleading since one may erroneously categorize these works as primitive as the use of a tribal name may suggest.

“Shona Sculpture” is a contemporary modern art movement. Critics such as Celia Winter-Irving and Oliver Sultan, who have both written books on this subject, consider the participants of McEwen’s workshop as some of the most creative artists of the twentieth century. McEwen’s influence is incalculable since his teachings continue to influence artists in Zimbabwe and throughout Southern and Eastern Africa. Zimbabwe continues to be the center for stone sculpture in Southern Africa.

f_miscbigThere are several common features of stone sculpture from Zimbabwe. The first is the stone. Artists use locally found stone. The most common stone is Serpentine. Other stones include verdite, malachite, steertite, and opal. When sculpting, the artist follows the form of the stone. They do not draw sketches or even draw on the stone. Quintessentially, the stone dictates to the artist what subject lies within its core. The artist and the stone develop a relationship with one another. The tools that are used are hammer, chisel, file, and sandpaper. Once the artist has completed sculpting the stone they place it in a fire where the stone is heated. Next they apply Bee’s wax which melts and absorbs into the stone, giving the stone a deep rich luster.

To learn more about modern Zimbabwean art, click on the links below:

House of Stone’s Role

We support both young and established Zimbabwean artists by purchasing sculpture at fair trade prices and presenting their work to an international marketplace.

Today’s economic and political realities in Zimbabwe make it nearly impossible for a young artist to succeed. Through contacts within the surviving art world and travels to Zimbabwe, House of Stone plans to continue to bring exciting new Zimbabwean sculpture to the United States. Through your support, the work of these artists becomes valued and they and their art will thus hopefully survive the present harsh times.


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