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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.
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Good Will, Cast in Stone
How can a stone radiate warmth? Peggy Knowlton, independent
curator and authority on the stone sculpture of Zimbabwe, says smooth
forms, rich hues, and a polished luster make these African stones
Just as marble is known for its `coolness,’ the stones of Zimbabwe
are known for their amazing warmth. "They have a power," she
says. "When you walk into the room, the gleaming patina and brilliant
variegated colors just beg to be touched."
The seventh annual show and sale of Shona stone sculpture of Zimbabwe,
to benefit HomeFront and its work with area homeless families, begins
Wednesday, May 26, and continues to June 6. The show is open daily,
11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Sundays to 6 p.m., at no charge.
The name "Zimbabwe" literally means "house of stone,"
used to describe Great Zimbabwe, monumental stone enclosures that
still stand in the south-central African nation. Built by the Karanga
royal clan in the 10th and 11th centuries, the structures are the
vast ruins of a medieval kingdom, consisting of elliptical walls,
30 to 40 feet high, built entirely without mortar. Birds sculpted
of soapstone once surrounded the stone walls. And in this land of
oral history, there is no clear record of how or why these wonders
were built. In the years since independence, a museum has been built
at Great Zimbabwe which houses its historic relics, including the
During the time of the Karanga clan, stone carvers practiced an art
rooted in ancestor worship and belief in the abiding presence of spirits.
These beliefs endured even as the art was revived with outside support.
This is why, when the colonized nation known as Rhodesia gained its
independence in 1980, it named itself Zimbabwe.
For almost 500 years, from the mid-15th century decline of the Karanga
clan until the 1950s, little sculpture was produced. In 1957 a workshop
school was set up in Zimbabwe to encourage aspiring stone carvers
to examine their traditions. It is a tribute to the Shona people,
who make up the majority of the population of Zimbabwe, that their
work today is reminiscent of their ancient ancestors. Inspired by
religious myth, folklore, and ancestral spirits, the sculptors believe
that they are freeing a spirit which already exists in the stone.
Our most revered Western sculptors — from Michelangelo to Brancusi
— have expressed pretty much the same thing.
Sculptures in the HomeFront exhibition range in size from several
inches to several feet, and prices range from $85 to $18,000. Works
are carved from serpentine, opalstone, African jade, and semi-precious
verdite. The latter is among the oldest stone in the world, usually
colored bright green and blue, a stone found only in the mountain
ranges of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Kwekwe serpentine is new stone
now being mined and used by sculptors, occurring in light gray, blue,
yellow, green, mauve, and burnt orange.
Knowlton, who lives in Point Pleasant, on the Delaware in Bucks County,
Pennsylvania, says her annual HomeFront benefit is the closest show
in her annual four-exhibit tour.
She was raised in Connecticut, began her career in Manhattan real
estate management, becoming a vice-president of Stratford Management
Company. But a 1971 photographic safari to Rhodesia, as it was then
known, changed her career path.
"I was so taken with the sculpture, I needed to figure out a way
how I could spend the rest my life with it," she says. Next came
a hiatus during the nation’s 10-year war for independence, a long
and bloody war during which international sanctions against the regime
of Ian Smith eliminated foreign markets for the Shona sculptors. The
interruption actually gave Knowlton time to devise a plan to make
the sculpture her professional and personal passion. She returned
to the re-named Zimbabwe in 1983.
Now Knowlton spends from 10 to 12 weeks each year in the nation’s
capital, Harare, making trips into the bush to select works to import.
Each of Knowlton’s four annual exhibitions a year are fundraisers
for non-profit she "cares about." Her exhibitions include
an educational component of books, and the informative video, "Talking
Stones," plays throughout the exhibition. She says the time she
spends with the artists, learning about their art, their culture,
and the story behind each individual piece is invaluable.
Knowlton returned from her most recent trip to Africa just two weeks
ago. "This is always the first show after I return," she says,
"the one we call `the catbird show.’" She expects collectors
to come from distant points that include Florida, Connecticut, and
New York to see this year’s work.
Today’s sculptors draw on the rich culture of the Shona,
who believe that there is spirit in all matter. A Shona artist looking
at a large piece of rough, untouched stone, will often develop a clear
mental image of the spirit that he or she will free from the stone
before applying the chisel to the stone. "The sculpture is already
inside the stone — my job is to remove what has been hiding it,"
sculptor Nicholas Mukomberanwa has said.
After the raw stone is quarried with hatchets, the Shona sculptors
use chisels to "release" the spirit in the stone. There are
no artist’s studios in Zimbabwe; all the artists work outdoors under
the trees. Next they heat the stone in a fire, and finally polish
it with beeswax to bring out the brilliant color.
Today’s naturalistic sculptures of giraffes, owls, hippos, and other
indigenous creatures, as well as clustered "family" figure
groups, are giving way to more abstraction. Knowlton says these powerful
contemporary pieces reflect the evolution of the Shona esthetic and
the sculptors’ enduring creativity.
The founding generation of 15 Shona artists broke new ground with
exhibitions at the Musee Rodin in France, and at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York in 1968. The founding group included Norbert Shamuyarira,
John Takawira, Richard Mteki, Claude Nyhangongo, as well as the
late Joseph Ndandarika, Henry Munyaradzi, Brighton Sango, and Moses
Masaya. Today’s second-generation sculptors, a group that includes
Dominic Benhura, Brian Mteki, and Coleen Madamombe, have the support
of the National Gallery in Harare, which allows sculptors to put their
works on show and sale in the courtyard.
Another second-generation woman who has successfully
entered the male-dominated field is Agnes Nyhangongo, the adult daughter
of Claude Nyhangongo. She started out helping her father in straightforward
tasks of polishing and finishing, and joined the sculpture workshop
in 1984. She has since won international awards for her work.
"There is great deal of international interest in the second generation
artists," says Knowlton. "Their sculpture has really taken
a new direction. Although they have great respect for those that preceded
them, their thematic concerns differ. Their sculpture is more concerned
with social issues such as street children, hunger, and changing gender
relations." Knowlton says the second generation sculptors exhibit
widely and travel to shows in Europe. The new works tend to be larger
pieces, in harder stones, and more challenging subjects. "It’s
a very exciting time now — the movement is taking a whole new
Connie Mercer of HomeFront says the organization’s major annual fundraiser
comes at a time when the so-called "safety net" has been gutted.
HomeFront helps homeless children and their families in Mercer County,
especially those living in the motels along Route 1, by supplying
food, clothing, medical treatment, and housing. Its mission is to
help homeless families become independent, contributing members of
the community. During the organization and set up of the annual sculpture
show, community volunteers, art professionals, and former HomeFront
clients work as a team to get the art installed and the publicity
"More and more of our clients are poor single mothers, many of
them working 40 to 50 hours a week," says Mercer. "Something
goes wrong and the whole family is thrown into crisis." Without
programs of government assistance, she says, it has fallen to HomeFront,
Crisis Ministries, and Catholic Charities to come to the aid of these
families in need.
HomeFront’s goal is to raise $45,000, all of which will go directly
to families in need. Area corporations and institutions that have
recognized the collectability of the sculpture include the Princeton
University’s Woodrow Wilson School for International Affairs, the
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the law firms of Stark & Stark and
Hill Wallack, Grounds for Sculpture, Princeton Partners, and PMA Associates,
— Nicole Plett
Street, adjacent to the Nassau Christian Center, 609-989-9417. The
annual benefit show and sale of Shona stone sculpture of Zimbabwe
begins Wednesday, May 26, and continues through Sunday, June 6. Open
daily, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Sundays to 6 p.m.
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