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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 31, 2000. All rights

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E-mail: PatSummers@princetoninfo.com

Spirits of the Shona Art

Imagine this: You are a sculptor, working only with

the most basic hand tools. Laboriously, you create your image —

a spirit, a face or figure, an animal, maybe an abstract shape. Then

you begin the weeks or months-long process of sanding your work, to

refine and smooth it. In between sanding sessions, you wash it,

removing

the powder, seeing how close you have come to your goal. Finally,

you place it near a great bonfire whose heat increases the stone’s

porosness so you can hand-rub your sculpture with beeswax to bring

out its colors and protect it.

Now imagine this: You are a member of a homeless family in Mercer

County — perhaps an unemployed parent, or maybe one of the

children

— leading a life that does not include your own backyard, your

own kitchen or dining room table to talk around over a meal. Your

present is unsettled; your future is uncertain.

Most of us, not having known the demoralizing and incapacitating state

of homelessness, probably find the second "imagine" harder

than the first. But these two conditions converge at MarketFair.

There,

through Sunday, June 11, stone sculpture created by Zimbabwe’s Shona

artists will be exhibited and sold to benefit the homeless families

of Mercer County served by HomeFront, whose mission is to prevent

homelessness and to help homeless families become independent.

The annual show is curated by collector and specialist Peggy Knowlton,

of Point Pleasant, Pennsylvania, who, since the early 1980s, has spent

10 to 12 weeks each year traveling in Zimbabwe, meeting artists and

buying and shipping work back to the U.S. Each of the shows she

organizes

in the U.S. benefits an area cause.

In the capacious MarketFair store, donated for the show’s three-week

duration, the eighth annual show of large and small sculptures,

figurative

and abstract, looks better than ever. A card accompanies each

sculpture

carrying its title, the artist’s name, and type of stone, while a

"legend" gives a bit of information about the work’s subject

and context. Prices range from under $100 for a small sleeping cat

to $18,000 for a major work. As pieces are sold, they are replaced

by others stored behind the showroom area. Each buyer leaves with

a full-page biography of his or her artist and instructions for caring

for the work.

Among the many stones, all quarried in Zimbabwe, Knowlton says the

hardest to work is the "springstone serpentine," named for

its seeming ability to cause the chisel to spring back toward the

sculptor. Opalstone is also notably hard, as is "fern

serpentine"

— a lyrical name for an unusual and appealing pale green shade

used for some of the works on view. A newly-mined stone, kwekwe

serpentine,

comes both in single colors and a range of mixed shades.

Traditionally, Shona artists — who in the 1950s revived a skill

their ancestors had practiced for centuries — think of each stone

as holding a spirit that they can carve free. Much of their work,

such as that of Charles Chaya, has to do with loving families, or

family circles of love. Many Chaya pieces feature the abstract forms

of mother and child, or family members in curving, interlocking

arrangements

that are reminiscent of Matisse’s joyful dancing figures.

Stylized portrait heads — a kind of long-distance Shona dialogue

with Brancusi — and handsome detailed busts in a polished,

near-black

stone or semi-precious verdite, are striking in their different ways,

with the latter sometimes bought for the value of the stone as well

as of the carving. Colleen Madamombe, heralded as a star of this show,

is a member of the second generation of acclaimed Shona sculptors

and one of its first female artists; the first generation of

revivalists

was almost exclusively male. She has created a number of rounded,

figurative sculptures in which heads and hands radiate the sheen of

dark, polished dark stone, while the rest of the image is worked from

the rough, natural surface. Her figures are suffused with humor, and

a snapshot of the artist on display suggests that her eloquent figures

bear more than a passing resemblance to their maker.

A large percentage of the Shona sculpture celebrates animals, from

a palm-of-the hand-size lizard on a rock, to lions of all sizes, both

erect and couchant, and hordes of hippos. One amazing piece shows

three giraffes in a circle that, at first glance, resembles a grove

of slender trees. Leopards and domestic cats are among the small,

affordable figurines, as are fish, birds, and a warthog.

The behind-the-scenes preparation, and generosity, make many other

stories. From the space donated by MarketFair, through the pedestals

that come from sources that include the New Jersey State Museum, and

the galleries of Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merrill Lynch, a combination

of donations and volunteers made this HomeFront show and sale

possible.

A uniformed MarketFair employee walked around looking at the sculpture

on the first day. He said he had been there so often before the

opening

that now he wanted to see the "after." Volunteers performed

myriad tasks, and area corporations and businesses gave generously

of expertise and materiel.

Most of these sculptures are heavy, and they were uncrated and

displayed

by "my guys," says Connie Mercer, HomeFront director. "As

important as the money raised is the opportunity for homeless people

to work with Princeton-area corporate people," she says.

"Invariably,

some of them are seen as good workers, and they’re offered jobs.

Another

benefit that comes with this exhibit is the involvement for all

concerned

with beauty and gentleness." And of course, she sees the show

as a prime occasion for spreading the word about the need in the

community

and what HomeFront does.

HomeFront’s client services include day care, tutoring, educational

and recreational opportunities, job training and placement, medical

and dental care, parenting classes, and hot meals. Every child

receives

a birthday card, present, and cake, and children are sent to either

recreational or educational summer camp, away from the motel where

they live right now. Families that move to their own homes may get

help with security deposits and furnishings. Thirty percent of each

Shona sculpture sale price, and 94 percent of HomeFront’s overall

fundraising efforts go directly to helping its clients. Take a Shona

sculpture home, support an artist, and help an area family, too.

— Pat Summers

Stone Sculpture from Zimbabwe , HomeFront, MarketFair,

609-989-9417. The exhibit is housed in the storefront (formerly

E.M.S.)

between Victoria’s Secret and Williams-Sonoma, in the wing that also

houses Restoration Hardware. Daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sundays

11 a.m. to 5 p.m., to June 11.


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