When the pandemic first hit the world, Zimbabwean stone sculptor David Ngwerume took his hammer and chisel and started work on the first of a collection of Covid-inspired pieces.
Almost two years and 14 sculptures later, one has made its way to China after being selected for the ninth Beijing International Art Biennale, an exhibition showcasing work from thousands of artists from more than 100 countries.
The piece, Unto the Third Wave, depicts a woman receiving a vaccine for Covid-19 from a pair of suspended hands. Ngwerume created it in June last year, just before a third wave of the pandemic hit the country. “When I heard a third wave was coming, I called it Unto the Third Wave. I was encouraging people – let’s get vaccinated, let’s get ready for everything that is coming, and for variants,” he says.
Omicron has prevented Ngwerume, who also has his own law practice, from accompanying his sculpture to China, but at home in Harare, he remains determined to continue adding to his Covid collection. His ambition is to produce and exhibit 25 to 30 sculptures.
Ngwerume started sculpting while still at school in Musana, north-east of Harare, under the tutelage of sculptor Cosmos Muchenje. He loved the idea of sculptures being widely visible and thinks they can better portray a message than a painting that has to remain indoors. Stone sculpting has a long tradition in Zimbabwe and Ngwerume collects different materials from quarries and mines around the country.
It was his father who inspired him to practise law and do art at the same time. Ngwerume was academically gifted and it was always his ambition to pursue a profession. “My father used to encourage me to do both,” he says. “He told me: ‘You cannot be a good artist without academic qualifications, you will end up failing to grasp how the world is moving’.” Now Ngwerume makes sculptures from his home studio.
The idea for the Covid collection was born in the early stages of the pandemic, when Ngwerume found himself thinking about what people were experiencing and how to reflect that through his art.
“Covid-19 was facing people in all parts of the world. It is a humanitarian catastrophe and nonselective between rich and poor, black and white, Muslims and Christians … it was cutting through everything that divides humanity,” he says.
“I felt inspired [and thought about] what role I should play to bring awareness, to inspire the world. How can we fight this pandemic together and how can we see ourselves through?”
Ngwerume’s first sculpture from his self-financed collection is a figure of a woman wearing a mask.
After vaccines were created, he did a sculpture called Arms – a half-torso with a pair of suspended arms holding an injection. He explains: “The reason why it’s a half is because I didn’t want it to be perceived as a gender. I wanted it to resonate with everybody.”
He’s also created a sculpture called Hygiene, which shows two hands washing. “My ambition was to move with the world, play my part and pass messages into the world,” says Ngwerume.
His work has attracted international attention, beyond the Beijing biennale, and has been featured in various media outlets. “There was no artist doing something like that and it was speaking to the times,” he says.
Ngwerume’s ultimate dream is to see his work exhibited around the world, including at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva. “Coming from a small country in Africa, I’m unnoticed and unrecognised and I wonder if that will happen,” he says. “Maybe it will just be a wish. I’m not going to stop what I’m doing even if I end up exhibiting at my house and even if the galleries will not look at me.”
He adds: “I will keep going, my spirit keeps soaring.”