Stone World

A culture in stone

August 22, 2001
According to David Chidumo, the curator of the new Chapungu exhibit of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, the name Zimbabwe means "House of Stone." It is fitting then that Harare, Zimbabwe, is home to the Chapungu Sculpture Park, an open-air preserve where artists can go to have the space and atmosphere necessary to create their larger-than-life stone sculptures.

The sculpture park, named for the Chapungu bird which in Shona culture is believed to ward off evil, has produced numerous famous artists, many of whom have had no formal training in the art of sculpture, said the curator. "These artists have never gone to school for art," Chidumo said. "Their art is coming out of their souls. They already had the talent. They just had to learn how to develop it."

Quarrying the stone themselves and using only hand tools, these artists spent much time perfecting their work. "The stone comes from different parts of country, especially the Great Dyke, a belt of mountains which divides Zimbabwe from north to south. There are lots of different kinds of stone in this range, including opalstone, springstone and serpentine," Chidumo said. "They go to the mountain and dig up stone from the quarry and bring it home to work. They work with whatever size stone they can cut from the mountain. It depends on how the stone breaks and how much they can carry."

Once the stone is brought back home or to the sculpture park, the artist has to determine what the finished sculpture should look like. "Our culture is closely linked with spiritualism," Chidumo said. "The artists see the image inside the stone and they must work to chip away the exterior and bring the image out of the stone."

To do this, they use a variety of hand tools. A common hammer and chisel are often used to chip away at the stone blocks. Additional tools that are used include a file, a chasing - an instrument that has combs on its tips which is used to create different textures - and wet and dry paper or water paper, which is likened to sandpaper and used to give the stone a smooth texture. To bring the finished work to a shine, the artists often wipe the stone down with beeswax.

According to Chidumo, the amount of time it takes to complete a sculpture depends on whether the image within the stone stays with the artist while he or she is sculpting. "If the image and the inspiration disappears, the artist can put that block of stone aside for many months before the image reveals itself again," he said. "It could take more than a month to complete one large piece, even if the image remains constant."

The type of stone used also determines the amount of work it will take to complete a sculpture. Some artists such as Joe Mutasa, a second-generation artist who created the sculpture "Coming of Age," prefer the hard stones such as "springstone," granite or dolomite. "Hard stone brings more of a challenge," Chidumo said. "Harder stones don't break very easily. A lot of artists want to work on soft stone which doesn't wear their tools as quickly, but it is difficult to bring out details in softer stones." Springstone is a popular choice among the artists of Chapungu, as is serpentine.

The themes of these sculptures are associated with the culture and religion of the Shona tribe in Zimbabwe, to which many of the artists belong. Pieces such as "Coming of Age" and "Returning to My Sekuru" relate to the family, while a sculpture like "Protecting the Eggs" has to do with protecting nature and the environment.

A collection of 67 pieces created by the artists of Chapungu will be on exhibit throughout the Missouri Botanical Garden from Tuesday, May 1 through Sunday, October 7, 2001. Some of the artists themselves will also be present to conduct workshops showing how they go about their work. The sculptures range in height from 3 to 10 feet and weigh up to 6,000 pounds.

The exhibit has already been well received in other countries. Its stay at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, London was heralded. The exhibit's debut at the Missouri Botanical Garden marks the first time this many pieces of Zimbabwean sculpture have been seen together in the U.S.