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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

sizzle.

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

sculpted birds.

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

direction."

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

in place.

"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,

among others.

— Nicole Plett

Stone Sculpture from Zimbabwe, HomeFront, 30 Nassau

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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