Impassioned plea to save Zim stone sculpture from plunder The late Tom Blomefield

Tony Monda-Herald Correspondent

Zimbabwe’S stone sculpture plays an important role in interpreting social reality between the artist and the viewer. It forms a contemporary cultural memory bank for further study and appreciation of this world-renowned art form. 

The all-embracing pantheon of Zimbabwean sculpture is of considerable value in that it sheds new light on a broad range of socio-cultural issues and challenges, both old and new. 

Further, our art has been known to provide qualitative solutions to socio-cultural problems that are creative, innovative, empathetic, ecologically grounded, and socially responsible. 

Rendered in the work is a spiritual and universal symbolism which according to Jungian philosophy establishes an unconscious inheritance common to all mankind. 

Several key figures in the development of stone sculpture need to be recognised: the late Frank McEwen (director of the N0ational Gallery of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe), the late Tom Blomefield (founder of Tengenenge Sculpture Community), and Jthe late oram Mariga who is cited as the first Zimbabwean stone sculptor and who on his own began to carve in soapstone. 

His work came to the attention of McEwen who encouraged Mariga to experiment with other rock types such as serpentine. Mariga’s influence on the genesis of the genre is enormous. 

One of the most original and distinctive features of Zimbabwean art is its appeal to both African and Western ideals of art. 

It combines Shona iconography with socio-cultural ideals and an aesthetic to which many cultures can relate. Hence its universal appeal. 

It documents the history of this nation and harks back to the predecessors who created the 12th century Great Zimbabwean monolithic palace of stone and the National avian symbols in steatite the Zimbabwe Birds. 

During the reign of Mwene Mutapa, Great Zimbabwe was a majestic ancient stone city that flourished near the modern town of Masvingo from about 1290 to 1450 on the strength of a powerful and organised society. 

Leopold Sédar Senghor, former president of Senegal, stated: “Culture is at the beginning and the end of development”.

“Today, many surveys and studies show us that culture and art are one of the most dynamic economic sectors in terms of employment, economic growth, and wealth creation. It also promotes social cohesion and democratic participation in public life. Finally, unlike mineral resources, social and cultural capital is a renewable resource.” (Brussels Declaration by Artists and Cultural Professionals and Entrepreneurs (EU and CAP Countries)

At the heart of the creative economy lies the creative industries. These industries encompass several disciplines, including visual arts, performing arts, music, film, and media, to name but a few. They can range from small businesses located in the informal sector to large million-dollar entities. One thing that they all have in common is that the activities are intensive in creative skills and can generate income through trade and intellectual property rights. 

Once largely neglected as a sector of the economy, or labelled as an elitist pursuit, the creative industries are more and more recognised for their ability to create development opportunities and generate income.

It is increasingly being recognised that the “heart and soul” (culture and creativity) of development lies within the creative economy. This has been evident in some countries that are engaging the creative arts more and more as a means to create and re-create their identity and for the regeneration of indigenous cultural knowledge.

Bearing this in mind, sculpture embodies genealogical and heraldic information pertinent to the nation, often with an accuracy of detail and craftsmanship envied by many other nations. 

The country has several identifiable categories of stone sculpture. However, it is largely the content and context that distinguish it as a hallmark of African culture — in that it associates with many aspects of life, and has varied canons of styles and concepts. 

Whilst in most countries in Africa, there has been a distinct cleavage between tradition and contemporary life, local stone sculpture embodies a wholehearted veneration for our culture from age-old traditions and socio-cultural belief systems to new and novel trajectories of self-perception as a nation in transition. 

The creation of this dynamic art form has united artists with scholars, buyers, and collectors from all over the world, and has been subject to much scholarly scrutiny and research in many prestigious universities, museums, and institutions in Europe, the Americas, the Far East and Australia. 

Zimbabwean stone sculptures are emblems of ancestral fame, they embody proverbs and old-age lore and can be seen as a thesaurus of culture in all its forms, environmental, genealogical, ceremonial, linguistic, spiritual, economic, political, and diplomatic. 

If properly managed, documented, and curated, Zimbabweans can establish a dynamic, diversified, and sustainable cultural sector imbued with local values and identity, which contributes towards our knowledge base, wealth creation, and cultural scholarship. 

That such a treasure should be lost to foreign nations and private collectors whose motives are wholly greed, avarice, and commercial exploitation is a travesty.

Further, the very same buyers who over the years have exploited the local artist by not paying them the due remuneration for the work, having themselves grown over-fat on the proceeds have returned like carrions to scoop up the last remains of our cultural history. 

Over 19 buyers from Europe, America, Australia, and the Eastern bloc are circling over Chapungu Sculpture Park like hungry vultures and purchasing the last of our vintage heritage for a pittance. 

It is germane for the Government, and indigenous philanthropists to arrest this wanton cultural genocide which is currently unfolding before our eyes at Chapungu Sculpture Park in the last few months. 

The erudition of artists is unacknowledged in the land of its origin, nor is the work properly documented for posterity and future education. 

Given the many universities that have opened in the last 10 years, in the country, Zimbabwe also stands to lose its scholarship and cultural tourism base if this abysmal sale is allowed to continue unchecked.

It would be chivalrous for the nation’s leadership to stop this from taking place. True indigenisation must include the reclamation and preservation of our cultural heritage and national heirlooms. 

In a survey of public opinion, many prominent artists have expressed their disdain over this matter and the continued siphoning of our cultural heritage, but feel they are however, powerless to stop it from taking place. 

The intervention of the Zimbabwean government at this juncture is mandatory and can redress the current anomaly. 

Some International laws about the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import/export and transfer of ownership of cultural property or the removal or sale of tangible heritage such as the UNESCO Convention of 1970 should be considered in this matter. The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions — is a legally binding international agreement that ensures artists, cultural professionals, practitioners and citizens worldwide can create, produce, disseminate, and enjoy a broad range of cultural goods, services and activities, including their own. 

It was adopted because the international community signalled the urgency for the implementation of international law that would recognise among others, the distinctive nature of cultural goods, services, and activities as vehicles of identity, values, and meaning. 

 This is particularly pertinent to many African and other indigenous cultures throughout the world. 

The convention ushers in a new international framework for the governance and management of culture by encouraging the introduction of cultural policies and measures that nurture and safeguard creativity, and provide access for creators to participate in domestic and international marketplaces where their artistic works/expressions can be recognized and compensated and ensure these expressions are accessible to the public at large; 

The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions is a legally binding international agreement that ensures artists, cultural professionals, practitioners and citizens worldwide can create, produce, disseminate, and enjoy a broad range of cultural goods, services and activities, including their own. It was adopted because the international community signalled the urgency for the implementation of international law that would recognise:

Bearing this in mind it is still possible to stop the wanton sale of our cultural heritage and prevent the fiscal and aesthetic undermining of Zimbabwean sculpture. The sale will immediately undervalue the cost of purchasing the work for the Zimbabweans- whilst fuelling higher international resale prices based on the historical provenance of the works and their rarity- given that most of the important early sculptors are now deceased. As a nation, we are allowing a part of Zimbabwe to be purchased for twopence. 

This unfortunate outcome was earlier predicted by this writer when I said that

“It is pertinent for the Zimbabwean judiciary to develop and implement legal instruments that not only prevent the haemorrhaging, copying, and destruction of our heritage but also enhance the legal capacity to safeguard our heritage and the purveyors of the visual arts.” 

Art is one of the highest forms of expression of a given culture. The culture is us, and it belongs to us. 

The works that we create should be prevented from being exploited by any other nation or national of that nation. Zimbabwean sculpture must be seen as a cultural entity that has re-constructed African knowledge, material culture, and social identities following decades of colonial cultural subjugation. 

Out of all the nations in Africa, the large varieties and abundant supplies of rock formations present throughout the Zimbabwe landscape provide artists with a medium for sculpture unique to their country. 

The contemporary stone sculpture of Zimbabwe combines the awe-inspiring varieties, patinae, colours, hues, and textures presented by the serpentine stones with imagery drawn both from reality and abstracted and stylised symbolism.

With regards to the public auction at Chapungu; there was no public announcement of the sale of these National Treasures, which are being conducted furtively and underhandedly without the consultation of the relevant state Ministries or the National custodians of our Art. 

 The Zimbabwean State still has the power to arbitrate, halt, or purchase the entire Chapungu Sculpture Park collection. So do several indigenous businessmen and women who could for once, prove their cultural patriotism for their country by donating to this cause and assisting the National Institution-The National Gallery of Zimbabwe to re-purchase these works if the sale cannot be stopped by the higher state offices of Zimbabwe. 

The ramifications of this sale is dire — very dire! It means the loss of 54 years of the nation’s cultural history. The loss of future research material for the several Universities now in place in this country, the loss of a potential cultural tourism industry, the loss of an irreplaceable tangible African heritage and heirloom for our children’s posterity and education — not to mention its accumulated monetary value if professionally assayed. 

Our Governments are under the legal and constitutional obligation to ensure that the nation’s cultural heritage and its foundations are protected. At the heart of cultural and artistic innovation lies a capacity to aspire. For the many talented Zimbabwean visual artists, a sense of imminent opportunity is proffered in life by way of creating Art as an accessible motivator for personal growth and development. 

To this end, Zimbabweans need to garner their resources and support the National Gallery of Zimbabwe which is in the throes of trying to keep, conserve, and preserve our artwork, but needs national moral, monetary, and legal support expeditiously. Let us do it now! We are already late.

l Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Post-Modern Art Theory and a Doctorate in Business Administration( DBA) in Post-Colonial Art and Heritage Studies. He holds a Law and Art Diploma from Georgetown University, Washington DC, and worked with WALA (Washington Area Lawyers Association). He also studied law and photography at the Corcoran School of Art, Washington DC. He is a practicing artist, art critic, author, designer and corporate image consultant and a veterinary practitioner.

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