“The majority of the artists in this country are Shona, a thoughtful, profound and sweet people that is inclined to mysticism and armed with an infinite patience. The older Shona live from the land and have retained their mystical beliefs, profound in a magical world of ancestral and tribal spirits. Today, the Shona artist, in between two worlds, the new and the old, feels a need for expression, and to mark his presence, in a new domain, relies on his rich mystical heritage. His inspirations come from the mythical religion and the symbolism of the elders, through meditation, dreams and dreaming.”

Frank McEwen, 1971

The Zimbabwean countryside is surrounded by ancient constructions built in unmortared stone. In the region, there are more than 250 stone houses or those of Zimbabwe’s. The ruins of Zimbabwe’s, once known as Great Zimbabwe, were an up-and-coming hub for the confederation of rulers and big, ancient urban centers as well. Ultimately, as the population grew, the stress caused dispersal into tiny villages over the area.By the beginning of European colonialism, the Zimbabwea's had faded into decay.

Today we understand that these ruins were once flourishing settlements constructed in the thirteenth century by ancestors of the modern Shona.The White government did not recognize indigenous roots during the colonial era.Instead, these ruins were ascribed to the biblical queen of Sheba or Phoenicians by the Rhodesian government.Stone carving was a characteristic of Shona civilization parallel to the Zimbabwe's crafted stonework. Despite the abandonment of the old city centers, the people of Shona have continued to carve personal items to the present day.

In the British colonial era in Rhodesia, modern Zimbabwean stone sculpture culture finds its origins. The Rhodes National Gallery was constructed by the colonial government in 1955 to exhibit European art. The first director was Frank McEwen, an English museum curator invited by the government. McEwen settled in 1956, made connections with the European art community (as he knew Braque and Picasso and many others) and he fought for local art promotion. The oppression of indigenous creative activity by the colonial authorities frustrated McEwen and he began to encourage residents to express themselves through sculpture at the museum.

After 70 years of colonization, the conservative party took office in Rhodesia and upon UK’s pressure on their politics, the Rhodesian government broke all ties to Britain and declared the country as a republic. Their action led to a broad consequence of sanctions by the United Nations.  Countries like the US continued to do business in the area or with the government, and with their help, the Rhodesian government tried to keep their country self-sufficient. 

However, the sanctions affected the art scene in the country. In 1966, a tobacco farm in Tengenenge, owned Tom Blomefield, was affected by these sanctions. Blomefield thought of a moonlighting option for his workers and turned a part of his farm into an art market for his African workers to make and sell stone sculptures. With this initiation, Tengenenge became a successful spot for sculptures, contrary to the rest of the country. 

In the decades that followed, the white Rhodesian government continued to isolate the country from the world, as the African population’s tension grew bigger in their pursuit of independence. In addition to all the international pressure against the Rhodesian government, the indigenous art of stone sculptures became a national item, regularly used in international publicity. At this time, sculptures started to depict themes of war as the African population’s war for their independence grew stronger. 

The Rhodesian government even began talking about closing the National Gallery in Harare, as the artworks inside became too “modern”, meaning political in their eyes. 

After taking their independence, the nation has changed the country’s name to Zimbabwe, which means “stone houses”, like the ones at their famous ancient ruin site in the countryside.  Hence, in a key fashion, the tailoring of the contemporary country was both literally and metaphorically in reference to their ancient stone sculptures.

From their ancient times to the colonial era, politics have deeply affected Zimbabwean sculpture. But their international success has started with McEwen and his brilliant exhibition of African art in 1962, titled First International Congress of African Culture.  The exhibition displayed Yoruba masks, Ife and Benin bronzes, terra cottas from Nigeria and lastly the Shona sculptures. Along with the sculptures, McEwen displayed photos of Picasso’s, Braque’s and Brancusi’s artworks, all of whom had been influenced by these sculptures and culture. The exhibition sparked interest in Zimbabwean sculptures on an international level. 

McEwen began influencing artists, following their first good exhibitions, to discover mystic concepts in their discourse and produce sculptures based on their mythology. McEwen, in particular, was responsible for giving the "Shona Art" label on Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture. This name is inaccurate since the artists are members of various ethnic groups but also it provides a mistaken impression of tribal art. In addition, many elements of mythology that were described are nothing more than a new invention of mythology.

McEwen is also the one to link the modern Zimbabwean sculpture to a deeper root and history, as well as giving them the conceptual background of Zimbabwean religion and myths. To this day, many sculptors make pieces in harmony to the cultural background set by McEwen, using the common theme of ancestral spirits. A common theme of the sculptures is also to depict a half-human half-animal figure, emphasizing their belief in the metamorphosis of humans from man to animal. These symbols are based on the ancient myths of Skeleton Gods in African religions. These sculptures were exhibited and mentioned in an exhibition book at Museé Rodin, in the result of McEwen’s effort to promote Zimbabwean art in Europe.  

However, there is no evidence that the Shona people believe that their ancestor’s skeletons will animate or reincarnate in an animal form. The Shona people indeed believe in the omnipresence of spirits, their influence on one's life, and the possibility that they may communicate their desires and dissatisfaction with their descendants through spiritual mediums, but again it is crucial to note that this is not unique to the Shona.

In our exhibition Spirits in Stones, every sculpture is created by an artist of the Shona tribe. Despite the opposing thoughts on the subject, many artists believe that modern Shona sculptures are the revival of ancient Shona sculpting traditions, using the spiritual and ancestral themes extensively. Along with family depictions, which are very important to the Shona culture, sculptors also depict animal figures and abstract symbols in their works.  

The founder of Art Vision Gallery and Studio Berlin Maria Wirth, Mr. H. Otto Nagel have been a Shona sculpture collector since the early ’90s, in addition to his extensive painting collection. He is always very passionate and open-minded towards all kinds of art, he has supported arts and artists relentlessly through the years.

Mr. Gökhan Gül, had the chance to meet the Shona people as he conducts most of his business in Africa. He fell in love with these sculptures and started collecting them. When he brought them to Turkey, he noticed everyone around him also loves the sculptures. He then decided to import these sculptures and exhibit them in his gallery, Klip Kuns, a gallery specifically opened for these sculptures. 

With the opportunity provided by Mr. Gökhan Gül and Klip Kuns Gallery, Mr. Nagel wished to sponsor an exhibition for these beautiful, energetic and spiritual sculptures. During the preparations for this exhibition Director of Klip Kuns Gallery, Ms. Gamze Alpar has always been by our side to guide us through the culture of the Shona people. I thank her for all the support she has given us. And as the Director of Art Vision Gallery, I believe I owe a big thank you to both art patrons for this opportunity to work with these gorgeous sculptures as well as being able to share them with our art community.  It has been an honour to work with both Mr. Nagel and Mr. Gül for Spirits in Stones.

Aslı Sabuncu

Gallery Director 

Art Vision Gallery by Otto Nagel, Istanbul 

16.10.2019 | 17.01.2020

Please reach us for the Spirits in Stones Press Kit.