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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 31, 2000. All rights
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,
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
— 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.
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
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,
and abstract, looks better than ever. A card accompanies each
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
— a lyrical name for an unusual and appealing pale green shade
used for some of the works on view. A newly-mined stone, kwekwe
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
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,
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
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
A uniformed MarketFair employee walked around looking at the sculpture
on the first day. He said he had been there so often before the
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
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.
some of them are seen as good workers, and they’re offered jobs.
benefit that comes with this exhibit is the involvement for all
with beauty and gentleness." And of course, she sees the show
as a prime occasion for spreading the word about the need in the
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
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
609-989-9417. The exhibit is housed in the storefront (formerly
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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