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Kevin Dispatch

The Creature Within

Zimbabwe
Although people can rarely agree on exactly "What is art?", it can be simply stated that art is the result of transforming nothing into something by way of a creative process. Blank space can suddenly host a painting, empty air can soon be filled with music, the movement of the human body can be transformed into a dance, and even the rocks in the ground can likewise become pieces of great art. Out of the countless sculptures I have seen, very rarely have I encountered such a vast array of style, color, texture, and material as I have while visiting the Chapungu Sculpture Park just outside of Harare.

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Can someone send us some chairs? My legs are tired!
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The Chapungu Sculpture Park resembles a traditional Shona village with its straw huts and wooden bridges surrounded by grassy fields and a lake covered with a layer of red algae. But the park is home to a plethora of sculptures by numerous artists who still craft their work using traditional Shona styles mixed with more contemporary methods. In the past, much of the Shona sculpture was done using soapstone, a soft easily carved stone found throughout Southern Africa that was very workable despite the unavailability of very hard tools.

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Two heads are better than one!  Don't you agree?
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Even to this day, it is the most widely used material because it's easy to carve, and most of the small sculptures sold in the parks by local artists are made of soapstone. However, because of its soft quality, it is also a fragile stone and it is not easy to find an abundance of ancient Shona sculpture still intact today.

There were several artists working on their pieces throughout Chapungu Park as I was strolling around. Regardless of the stones chosen, they never use machines to cut or shape them. In addition, they often allow the stones to decide for themselves just what sort of sculpture they would like to become.

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Fascinating faces of Zimbabwe!
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One of the sculptors, named Hakim, explained: "You just take the stone in its raw form and start chipping away at it with a hammer and chisel. Pieces break off naturally, sometimes they're big pieces but usually they're small. As you continue hammering, the stone begins to take its own shape but the outcome still remains uncertain. Then eventually you take another look at what you've got left in your hand, and you suddenly see it -- a bird, a leopard, a person. And that's when you realize exactly what this stone has decided to become and you must continue to help it along."

In addition to soapstone, modern day artists now have a variety of stones that they can work with.

Leopard Stone: a cream colored stone with many traces of black throughout it resembling the pattern of leopard skin.

Limestone: a gray stone found all over Zimbabwe.

Marble: commonly used in Western sculpture. It is very hard, resisting significant wear.

Opal: it is yellow on the outside but light green on the inside.

Serpentine: comes in many colors such as green, black, brown, and red.

Spring Stone: it is like serpentine stone but much harder.

Steatite: similar to soapstone in that it is very soft and easy to work with.

Verdite: the hardest (second only to diamonds) and most valuable of the stones used. It is only found in small pieces and from within South Africa and Zimbabwe. It's comprised of a combination of many shades of dark green.

The newfound object gets filed down and then worked over with sandpaper ranging from 60-800 grit. The final step is to polish parts of the sculpture, or perhaps all of it, using a clear or white polish that brings out the stone's ultimate color and adds to the shine.

But just what are these sculptures and what makes them so diverse? Not only are they made of the variety of stones listed above, but they are of virtually anything the sculptor desires (or discovers). Many works are simply images of people, but of all types. There are kids, mothers with children, groups of women or men, heads, people working, and faces. All of them are shown doing everyday things such as working, eating or interacting with each other. Common animals are also sculpted -- some are done in great detail, whereas others are more abstract in their representation.

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Hakim, my new sculptor friend, working hard.
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I often encountered a sculpture that looked like a person but with highly exaggerated features such as big fat hands, or an elongated face, and strangely shaped ears and other parts. This style is representative of Shona legends that deal with the concept of the totem. Every Shona family has a totem, which is made up of a particular animal, the family symbol. When a woman gets married, she abandons her family's totem for that of her new husband. Through marriage and offspring, people are united from all over the land because they share the same totem (of which there are several hundred existing today in Zimbabwe).

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Sculpture depicting the transformation from man to animal.
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The legend states that if you eat an animal, particularly that of your own totem, then you will eventually be transformed into that animal. The deformations of the sculptures signify the metamorphosis of humans who are in the process of becoming the animal of their totem. It is a symbolic style affecting Shona sculpture very much the way that Cubism has affected Western art. Aside from people and animals, there are also many works in abstract forms meant to simply honor the beauty and quality of the stones themselves.

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Mother and her child.
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What I personally found the most fascinating about the Shona sculptures was the frequent use of the stone in its original un-worked form, mainly for special effects. Only after the filing, sanding, and polishing is finished do the stones look smooth and refined. But many stones are really rocks at first with rough rock-like exteriors. Sculptors intentionally use and maintain these original textures to create rougher features such as a person's hair or clothing as opposed to their smooth face or hands. The amazing contrast between the finished and unfinished stone within the same sculpture is very beautiful and a highly creative use of the stone's artistic flexibility.

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Shona woman carrying her basket.
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As I walked through the fields filled with hundreds of sculptures, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of each piece. It was as if no two were alike and I had to focus special attention on each and every one because of their distinct qualities. I wanted to take so many home with me. (Can you imagine if someone tried to steal my backpack again with all of them in there!) The variety was as limitless as the imagination itself, but all of them the creation of the fabulous Shona sculptors of Zimbabwe.

Kevin

 

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