We are all versed with the founding of the Tengenenge sculpture community in the mid-1960s on a tobacco farm near Guruve during the oppressive colonial rule and the protracted war of liberation of Zimbabwe. It is no secret the immense contribution of the unique creative establishment’s mapping of today’s Zimbabwe stone sculpture practice and the marketing of the medium beyond the country’s geographical demarcations. Today we want to visit the state of the once thriving spiritual stone carving community as it is a natural phenomenon that things do not remain the same.
It will be appropriate to have a brief interface with the history of the conceiving of the stone sculpture colony. It was during the pick of the unbearable colonial oppression and the fighting of the war of liberation of Zimbabwe by the indigenous people in the 60s when the then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was considerably richer in the British colonised region of Southern Africa. Southern Rhodesia provided cheap labour employment in its vast agricultural lands in the hands of overseas white colonists or foreigners handed to them on a silver platter as colonial privileges. Many nationalities from the region especially Mozambique, Zambia, the then Northern Rhodesia, Malawi the then Nyasaland, Congo and Angola migrated to Zimbabwe for employment.
A subdivided tobacco farm near Guruve owned by a white South African, Tom Blomefield had numerous farm labourers from the above countries.
The farm activities led to the discovery of a quarry with rock suitable for carving. Tom Blomefield who was knowledgeable about art and his workers began to experiment with the medium.
This was a couple of years after the opening of the National Gallery of Southern Rhodesia in 1957 in Salisbury which was the capital city. The opening of the National Gallery had been considered as the most important development in Africa South of Sahara and the role played by its first successful director, a Briton, Frank McEwen.
McEwen had established the National Gallery Art Workshop School and had its early successful students who included Thomas Mukarobgwa, Joseph Ndandarika, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Paul Gwichiri, Boira Mteki and Kingsley Sambo. There were other independent local masons who were natural stone sculptors discovered from the eastern part of the country who joined the McEwen art stewardship.
Tom Blomefield and Frank McEwen met on an art drive and shortly there was the establishment of a makeshift art school on the tobacco farm under the stewardship of Frank. Remarkable success on local exhibitions and beyond as well as the moulding of great stone sculptors was realised. But the two had varying philosophies from the beginning with the former having a special heartfelt attachment to his new life project preferring to refer to it as “Tengenenge” (Place of beginning) whilst the latter referred to it as the National Gallery’s “Bush Art Studio” because of special attachment to it too.
Sadly with time the two had an unceremonious life split. What created the uniqueness of Tengenenge was having various African cultures from different nations living together observing and respecting each other’s cultural practices. The artworks created were spiritually inspired by the people’s respective backgrounds and the will to achieve. Transforming from an agonised farm labourer into a creative human being whose work could be viewed and appreciated elsewhere gave the new born artist self-esteem and respect from colleagues and strangers.
This rare breed of the first generation of modern stone sculptors in Zimbabwe who had Tengenenge experience went on to achieve fame and greatness across continents. They included locals Chrispen Chakanyuka, Bernard Matemera, Henry Munyaradzi, Edward Chiwawa, Sanwell Chirume, Sylvester Mubayi, Ephraim Chaurika, Enos Gunja, Leman Moses, Fanizani Akuda the Zambian Born, Fly Furai and Makina Kameya from Angola, Malawians Josiah Mannzi, Amali Malola and Ali Chitauro and Paul Meza to highlight but a few.
Tengenenge artists’ population grew all the time and they started their own families on the farm, creating a strong African spiritual community in use of 15 or so languages from six countries though local Shona was everybody’s language of communication. At some point the art sales sustained over 1200 community members. The artists passed on their artistic talent, skills and traditions to their off-springs and now grandchildren. As in nature a number of these greats have passed on and some left the sculpture community but others remained and the strong creative art spirit still lingers around.
Indeed times have changed, the golden rush for spiritual stone sculptures by the market has gone and our country’s lengthy economic hardship continues to exert tremendous pressure. Art business transactions have become elusive for the majority and very minimal for the lucky few. Opportunities and platforms are scarce. Relief and hope for the young and the future of the Tengenenge community like elsewhere now lies on education, innovativeness and good use of the land.
But there were no schools built for farm labourers anywhere nearby, neither were medical facilities, accessible roads and other essential infrastructure. Years on, a nearby school is by coincidence and several kilometres away, so are medical facilities and other essentials. A number of the Tengenenge great artists’ children never step foot on a classroom door like their parents during colonial times and modern times which demand education have caught up with them. The same fate had started nibbling on the grandchildren but in a way has been halted by the assistance of well-wishers mainly from the foreign lands across water bodies like the Czech
Republic, Austria, France, Germany, People’s Republic of Korea and generous local few like colleague Benhura, nurse Stella and the community themselves to highlight some. A classroom block was built at Tengenenge to help the infants with early learning. Marie Imbrova from the Czech Republic who was a diplomat from their embassy to Zimbabwe was very instrumental in filling some of the critical missing links of the community and stood by them during some of our country’s most desperate times.
She used significant sums of her own income, mobilised some other diplomatic missions and friends from all-over to assist in funding for medication, infancy education, revamping broken water systems of Tengenenge. More important she got birth registrations for children and their parents as well as sorting out various citizenship issues.
Births of the farm by foreigners never had official registrations as the immigrants never had their citizenship issues sorted out by the farm owner. Establishing an educational facility on the farm needed government approval and there are pieces of legislation which must be adhered to. They include the citizenship status of the intended scholars and their birth registrations, the capacity and remuneration of the teachers, the people involved in the establishment, educational materials and other things. Marie was in the thick of things to get everything rolling.
Today the Tengenenge preschool facility has prepared over 140 children and the stationed nurse has almost a full-house pharmacy. Other life sustaining projects for both men and women are up and running. The sculptors’ population is not as much as it used to be but is as focused and hard working. Numbers of visitors to Tengenenge are picking up and hope continues to motivate the creative practitioners to soldier on. Long live Tengenenge.