A Sculptural Tour of Zimbabwe

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The wild animals of Zimbabwe usually draw visitors to this part of the world, but other creatures here offer equal fascination. Earthy and elegant, heavy but graceful, Zimbabwe's stone sculpture melds modern artistic sensibilities with African themes. Working in the gleaming black serpentine stone native to the region, sculptors carve just what is needed to suggest a bird, or a woman, or even an emotion. And side trips to the communities that have grown up around this new/old art form are the perfect complement to the splendors of Victoria Falls and the numerous wildlife parks in the region.
Given the international acclaim the art has received, the surprising thing about Zimbabwe's sculptural tradition is its youth. The movement emerged during the late 1950s, when migrant farm workers were encouraged by a few influential artists and farmers to turn to sculpture for a living. Acclaimed artists such as Bernard Takawira and Boira Mteki learned their craft during this period.

Tengenenge, located in the remote north of the country, is the most famous sculptural park in Zimbabwe, and in fact the largest artists' community in all of Africa. Here, as in most of Zimbabwe's artistic communities, there are outdoor display gardens as well as indoor galleries and workshops; you will often see the sculptors at work. There are more than 17,000 sculptures in this lush rural setting near Goruve. Artists from all over the world come to Tengenenge to take classes and participate in workshops. A smaller and more accessible community is Chapungu, a mere taxi ride from downtown Harare, where the art, trees, and ponds will make you forget the bustle of the city. (Harare also boasts its own National Gallery, right downtown, with a superb collection and a modest sculpture garden of its own.)
And, of course, there is Zimbabwe's original sculpture park of sorts, the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, near Masvingo in the south. Here are the roots of the recent sculptural tradition, dating back to medieval times. In what was once the capital of a powerful medieval empire, cone-shaped stone towers and patterned stone walls mingle with striking rock formations to evoke a majestic past. It was here that the country's national symbol—statues of proud birds—were discovered. European explorers couldn't believe that native Africans could have built such a place, and they came up with all sorts of theories about its origin—that the settlement was the remains of King Solomon's mines, for instance. Now, however, Zimbabweans are proud of their heritage, and the country is named after the ruins, whose name means "walls of stone."
Practically Speaking:
Tengenenge: Public transportation is very difficult to this remote area. Several tour operators run to Tengenenge from downtown Harare, and some can arrange for sculpture classes. If your tour operator doesn't run a regular tour, try to set up a custom side trip.
Chapungu Sculpture Park: Any taxi driver can take you to Chapungu from Harare. National Gallery: Central Harare.
Great Zimbabwe: In Southern Zimbabwe, outside Masvingo. Numerous buses stop in Masvingo, as it is directly between Harare and Johannesburg. From Masvingo you can catch one of Zimbabwe's memorable minibus-taxis to Great Zimbabwe. Once there, guides are available for tours, and their knowledge is well worth the price.
Each of these destinations offers sculpture for sale. While museum-quality pieces sell at museum-quality prices, smaller works are quite affordable by Western standards.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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