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Working with the Stone

The stone used by Zimbabwean sculptors is unique in the world, in the range of colours that can be found in veins of rock that are literally next to one another in the earth: shades of avocado, pomegranate, granadilla, lemon, peach, plum, grape and mulberry.

More than 250 ores and combinations of serpentines have been identified in Zimbabwe – making it the only African country with significant deposits of stone suitable for carving. The 2.5 billion-year-old Great Dyke, a 510 kilometre series of ridges and hills running through Zimbabwe, is the longest linear mass of mafic and ultramafic rocks in the world. Formed when molten rock forced its way into existing rock formations, which later eroded, this ancient dyke is laced with a range of minerals, and offers an astonishing range of colours and combinations of stone.

In addition to the serpentines, which range from 2.00 – 5.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, (1 is talc and 10 is a diamond) Zimbabwe also has much harder granites and green verdite, which approaches 9.00 on the Mohs scale. The hardest serpentine –springstone – has a fine texture and offers good resistance for sculpting.  The raw stone is quarried with pickaxes, hammers and crowbars.  Many of the mines are just small rocky outcrops which, in the more remote areas, are simply claimed by whoever discovers them. It’s not unusual to find sculptors carving in makeshift studios near a mine, where they have access to a variety of rock.  Some sculptors find the form of their inspiration in the layers and shape of the rock; others work with predetermined goals in mind. The artists use chasing hammers, chisels, rasps and finally sandpaper (from rough to very fine water papers) for finishing. Artists also make their own tools – reshaping metal scrap and industrial blades.

The highly polished finish is achieved through heating the sculpture and, once hot, applying a colourless wax.  Traditionally this is done by heating the sculpture by a wood fire, but propane is often used by urban artists. Once the stone has cooled, the waxed areas are buffed with a cloth to bring out the enormous range of flecks, speckles and colours in the stone.

The artists explain that polishing always holds elements of surprise for them. Although they can read the stone’s colour in its raw state, there are subtleties that are only apparent once the stone is polished.

Authentic Shona sculptures are created entirely by hand. Unfortunately, however, more and more urban-based artists are beginning to use power tools.

The sculptors all work outdoors, creating and displaying their art in open-air studios. Sculpture parks are a favoured way of displaying work for sale and the country’s national galleries all have sculpture gardens or courtyards.

This tradition of exhibiting Shona sculpture outdoors is popular in the UK, many European countries, Australia and more recently in the U.S. ZimArt’s Rice Lake Gallery,
founded in 2000, was the first to build on this tradition in Canada.

 

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Authentic Shona sculptures are carved and finished entirely by hand.

Art Review Quote
"They have pursued the inner life of the spirit with a consuming passion that has produced some of the finest art known to man."

–Basil Davidson, African Kingdoms