Zimbabwe’s priceless, scattering heritage

Every society creates art and images that become a unique 'library' of cultural memory, reflecting passages of time, changing values, movements within a society and its relations with other cultures. Zimbabwe's visual culture is currently being scattered, even more than previo

usly, as people move. Many Zimbabweans took their much-loved sculptures and paintings with them when they left and some of the artworks inevitably find their way onto the market. Five artworks are being put up for auction in the UK, including one piece in stone by master sculptor, Nicholas Mukomberanwa (1940 – 2002). I met him at the National Gallery in Harare in the 1970s, when he was a policeman and only able to sculpt in his spare time. Gentle, warm and principled, he was the sort of policeman one would hope for and respect – so very different from the debased role being forced on our ordinary policemen today.
Mukomberanwa’s art speaks of the noble nature and warm humanity that many identify as essential characteristics of Zimbabwean people – characteristics in danger of irrevocable damage from the warped power-mongering and corruption of the illegal Mugabe regime. And for those very reasons, his work will remain of lasting value for Zimbabweans in generations to come. Born in Buhera District in 1940, Nicholas attended St Benedict’s Mission School, where he showed a talent for drawing, and then went on to Serima, where they were in the process of building a new church and looking for artists. Established by the Swiss Bethlehem Fathers and under the leadership of talented architect Father Groeber, Serima Mission was one of the few places where the importance of images in local culture was not only understood and taught but incorporated into the students’ environment. It was Father Groeber’s respect and admiration of African aesthetics that led him to create superb buildings reflecting local style and using local materials. The church at Serima – with its open spaces, carved wood altar and stunning floor-to-roof screen of apostles, saints and angels, baptismal font clad in small clay tiles depicting biblical scenes, two side-altars of gracious beauty, one with tiers of fine voluminous clay pots, and sculpted Stations of the Cross – is one of the most inspiring churches I’ve ever visited. The title of the work being offered for sale is unknown, but it depicts three people joined together in grief or suffering. The sorrow is a shared experience, not a solitary one. It brings them closer. Their emotional bond is evoked in the physical form of the sculpture, which allows no spaces between them, no divisions, no separation. The three heads press silently one against the other, under a single uniting head-cloth, the repeated shapes of the closed eyes and unhappy mouths echoing across the surface. And, the mark of a master artist, we sense their living thought and sorrowful being beyond the surface. Of great interest is the second artwork for sale. It is a piece of church ‘furniture’ carved on a gum pole and may have been one of the ‘practice pieces’ for the screen of columns behind the Serima altar. It appears to be in the rich and dramatically worked style of the earlier period at Serima, with the small crucifixion sheltered between narrative biblical scenes carved in bas relief and decorated with strong chevron patterning. The other three works for sale are from the woodwork school at Driefontein Mission, not far from Serima and also set up by the Bethlehem Fathers. The artist (or artists) of these works is unknown. The tall (three quarter actual size) male and female figures (probably Joseph and Mary) appear to be by the same artist, and possibly also the third and smaller figure (perhaps a priest or saint with a prayer book). Delicately carved out of light Jacaranda wood and stained, the figures have an elegance and peacefulness about them that is appealing. Their style is quite different to that of Serima, and closer to the style of carving found at the missions near Rusape. More conventionally European in approach, they are interesting, as is all the Serima and Driefontein work, in the depiction of biblical figures as Africans – at a time when this was highly unusual. Sad though it is that these works – which are part of all Zimbabweans’ heritage – are being dispersed, hopefully they will find an appreciative environment (perhaps the British Museum which now holds so much of the cultural heritage of countries in the South).

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