Meet art at every corner

Meet art at every corner

Zimbabwe brims over with a spectrum of creative output, influenced by its tradition and culture, writes Kalpana Sunder, recalling how art proved to be a powerful medium to connect with people in the South African country .

Zimbabwe has always had a rich tradition of art and craft: long ago, exquisite rock paintings were created by San Bushmen from the Kalahari, and the Bantu people made decorated clay; artistic remnants of soapstone birds were found in the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe — a 14th-century ruins from where the country derived its name. 

The local people from the Shona tribe have been carving stone for more than a thousand years. They believe that everything has a life spirit, even stone; so, when they carve something they believe it releases the spirit from stone. 

Stone communication

“Each piece of stone tells a story; when many people could not read or write, stone carving was used as a medium to chronicle happenings like a loss of a child or a failure of a crop,” says stone carver John Dabeti, whom I meet at a tourism fair in Harare — he trained under an artist after the death of his parents and loves working with precious stones like Verdite and Leopard Rock. 

Most of the artists in Zimbabwe, I discover, are self-taught. I love the Ukama sculptures that spell harmony and peace and have couples, dancers or families as the subjects where the bodies and hands are joined. The stone carvers use a variety of stones like the serpentine stone with bands of colours, the soft and malleable green verdite and other semiprecious stones like malachite. 

Most stone carvers only use sandpaper and hand tools, and to create glossy surfaces, they use beeswax; the products are abstract and stylised sculptures just for the sheer joy of it. I see colourful Zimbabwean batik with motifs of animals, village life and stories on a variety of bedspreads, table runners and wall hangings. 

Unlike the wax that is used in South East Asia, in Zimbabwe, corn meal called sazda (and a local staple food) is used in creating these masterpieces. Designs are painted with this mixture for masking colour dyes onto cloth and allowed to dry. Then the cloth is painted by hand and undergoes a curing process to produce vividly coloured fabric with themes of traditional village scenes or jungle tableaus. Imagine an array of wooden walking sticks made from different woods like olive, teak and pod mahogany, shaped like people, gods, spirits and animals: we are told that walking sticks are believed to hold the ancestral spirits, and those with snakes are even used as spirit mediums. Around the Victoria Falls I see carved Nyaminyami walking sticks representing the River God of Zambezi River.

Recycling ingenuity

Creative artists in Zimbabwe are perhaps the most inventive when it comes to recycling, Zimbabwean ingenuity turns waste like bottle caps, broken glass, pieces of wire and bottles scavenged from dump sites and scrap yards into innovative sculptures. I really enjoy the recycled art that I see all around the country made from old oil drums and scrap metal from old cars that is fashioned into whimsical birds, abstract figures and dipped in lacquer to give it a rich patina. 

At the National Art Gallery in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, I see a stunning metal scrap sculpture of a man on a bicycle with luggage stacked behind him and later meet Israel, the talented artist who fashions beauties out of old rusty metal, that adorn gardens and homes. Bottle cap art is prevalent all over the country with fridge magnets painted with bright acrylic paints, figures and even bags and briefcases made out of this discarded material.

Large intricately woven baskets from Binga in neutral shades catch my eye. Women weave these baskets from the sturdy fibres of the Illala palm, colouring them with natural dyes. My favourite is the bright Weya art dominated by women, with painted trays and plates and teapots as well as appliqués on cloth that have scenes from Zimbabwean villages on them: ancestors, marriage rituals, hunting, agriculture, against the backdrop of  traditional rondavel houses. 

This originated from the women in the Weya district of eastern Zimbabwe, some 170 kilometres from the capital city of Harare. It’s heartening to note that many women have helped put their children through school and run their households with the money derived from the sale of this art.

Rare jewellery

Eco-friendly and organic jewellery is a part of the country’s culture. In the Matobo National Park, I see the seeds of the mountain acacia and mahogany used to make strings of necklaces, quite often dyed to give them lustrous colours. At the Mzilikazi Art and Craft Centre, run by the City Council in Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe, I see talented potters fashion jugs, cups, and vases on the wheel followed by drying, painting, glazing and finishing them into shiny works of art. I meet an artist at the Elephant’s Walk Artist Village at Victoria Falls who works with metal wire and beads, stringing them into traditional jewellery, as well as contemporary interpretations like egg holders, figures and trees. Another art form that I see is hand-carved Nguni cow horns.

 Zimbabwean art and craft is now poised to enter the world stage and appeal to a global audience. The Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) has been staged over six days every year, showcasing local music, theatre, dance, craft and visual arts, giving artists from culturally disparate groups opportunities to network and collaborate — after years of isolation, the country has been sending artists to the Venice Biennale from 2011. Doon Estate in the capital Harare housed in old railway sheds sells up-market Zimbabwean pottery, glass, woodwork, jewellery, clothing, sculptures and curios to a discerning clientele. 

All art and craft is heavily influenced by a country’s culture and history, quite often, it offers a powerful way to provoke conversation,  enables personal reflection, and in Zimbabwe’s case, it is truly a triumph against all odds.

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