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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 22, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New Trials for the Shona
For the past 1,000 years, the Zimbabwe region of south
central Africa has been known for its creative Shona designers, builders,
and sculptors in stone. For the past 10 years, Zimbabwe was also known
as one of the more prosperous and stable post-colonial African nations.
During the peaceful 1990s, independent curator and Shona sculpture
specialist Peggy Knowlton spent 10 to 12 weeks each year based in
Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, making trips to outlying rural areas to
find and select sculpture to import to the U.S.
Now, as Knowlton prepares her 10th annual benefit show and sale of
Shona sculpture for HomeFront, which begins Friday, May 24, and continues
through June 16, at a spacious storefront at 43 Hulfish Street in
Princeton, the optimistic picture is fading. This is the first year
in a decade that she has been advised not to travel in Zimbabwe to
select art work for export.
"It’s much too dangerous to travel to Zimbabwe at the moment,"
says Knowlton in a phone interview from her home in Point Pleasant,
Pennsylvania. "It’s possible things may settle down since the
March elections are over. I’m hopeful that by the end of the summer,
my friends may tell me it’s safe to come."
"While the Shona are gentle and loving people, the world around
them has fallen into chaos," she continues. Newspapers are reporting
violent incidents and political unrest there. Agriculture markets
have been ruined; the previously lucrative tobacco trade has been
disrupted and now widespread famine is possible. While governments
of the world denounce the regime of president Robert Mugabe and his
questionable March election, little progress toward peace has been
Because most Shona artists sculpt at home, under the trees in their
yard, Knowlton has come to know them and their families well. She
says the export of new work from Zimbabwe has not stopped entirely.
Three weeks ago she received a shipment of art that will be part of
the HomeFront show.
This year’s show will also feature works from Knowlton’s own collection,
including three works by Brighton Sango, a second-generation Shona
artist who died in 1995 at age 33. Sango, whose style is abstract
and seen by many critics as having distinct Cubist leanings, was internationally
acclaimed at the time of his death and his work continues to be prized
by collectors. The show includes two works by the late Phineas Kamingira,
and several by his gifted student Bonface Nyakunu. "I felt Brighton
Sango was so important a part of the younger movement, that I thought
he should be represented in the show," says Knowlton.
Also featured are new works by the noted younger generation artists
Dominic Benhura and Colleen Madamombe. Knowlton says although the
nation is suffering, she predicts that these artists will persevere
in their work.
"I believe that the artists are seriously committed to their art,
and will continue to create, no matter what adverse conditions exist
for them," she says emphatically. "I think that the development
of the sculpture is reaching its strongest and perhaps most creative
period. The first generation artists are moving forward, but are probably
also at their peak. And now the younger artists of the second and
third generations are continuing to create the most innovative and
inspired works. I think the future of the Zimbabwean sculpture lies
with these creative and gifted younger artists."
Knowlton was raised in Connecticut and became a career
executive in real estate management in Manhattan. In 1971 she took
a photographic safari to Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called), where
she was introduced to Shona sculpture. She was so taken with it that
she vowed to find a way to make it part of her life. Zimbabwe’s 10-year
war for independence intervened. When it was over, Knowlton returned,
determined to make Shona sculpture her professional and personal passion.
The origins of the mystical stone sculptures of the Shona people are
traced back to the 10th century Great Zimbabwe stone enclosures, which
still stand. The Shona people believed in the god Mwari and that ancestral
spirits may possess the bodies of animals. That belief has evolved
into an art form that depicts and venerates the gamut of human experience
as well as all the elements of the natural world around them.
Knowlton and the Zimbabwean people enjoyed 10 years of peace during
the 1990s. Since then, not only has the African nation suffered violence
and disruption, but Knowlton has learned to know it too. Some of the
sculpture she will show this year for HomeFront was to have been exhibited
and sold in New York last October. That show was canceled. Both artists
and art dealer are wishing for peaceful times.
— Nicole Plett
Street, 609-989-9417. First day for the annual show and sale of Shona
stone sculpture of Zimbabwe to benefit area homeless families. Open
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through
June 16. Friday, May 24, 11 a.m.
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