Set In Stone | Grapevine Magazine

Set In Stone

by Orbi Montblanc

In a determinedly obscure corner of the earth, (GPS: N44*09.517’ W078*16.865’), yet surprisingly and conveniently equidistant of Peterborough and Port Hope, lies an unexpected slice of Africa.

As a candidate for a mystery tour destination ZimArt deserves to be at the top of any list. Anticipation builds as the last half kilometre of the journey takes one down a narrowing unpaved track, whilst witnessing the landscape gradually transform until glimpses of wildlife are seen among the trees. It takes time before the uninitiated realize these are actually sculptures.

Founded in 2000 and now celebrating its seventeenth anniversary, ZimArt’s Rice Lake Gallery is the vision of Fran Fearnley, and has evolved into the largest collection of entirely hand carved Zimbabwean stone sculpture – also known as Shona sculpture - in Canada. To further the appreciation of this art form Fran invites a Zimbabwean sculptor to travel to Canada as artist in residence for the season. In addition to being a cultural ambassador, the artist leads five-day and weekend sculpting workshops at the gallery.

The Great Zimbabwe, an ancient settlement and now a World Heritage Site, is evidence of a stone working tradition in this country dating back to the eleventh to fifteenth centuries. Current practice is much more contemporary, originating in the late 1950s when Frank McEwen, first curator of what was then Southern Rhodesia’s National Gallery, established a workshop for aspiring artists.

It would be a fascinating study to attempt to connect the ancient stoneworkers’ endeavours with that of their more recent brothers. Frank McEwen’s facility afforded no instruction, just materials, tools and a place to work. Yet somehow the first generation of artists, with no formal art training, created a new sculptural idiom in a very short time. Could it be a form of genetic memory? Are they accessing a Jungian “collective unconscious”? Were these “sculptors responding to images etched on their souls?” as Frank McEwen imagined?

Being entirely self-taught these early practitioners must have helped each other to define the characteristics of the recognizable style of work known today. Skills are passed down through families, like a mediaeval guild. One imagines there must have been discussion, criticism and critiquing, there would have been acknowledgement of more successful pieces which must have had an influence.

The works manifest an almost infinite variety of approaches to the stone. Subject matter addresses the lower end of Maslow’s triangle: the fundamental realities of life. However, despite life’s more evident challenges, the general mood of the work is celebratory, if not actually exuberant. Recurring themes are the veneration of women, fertility, family relationships, nature and the animal kingdom. Spirituality, linking totemic aspects of ancient beliefs with a fervently held Christianity, is palpable.

Gracefully combining sinuous fluidity and a real feeling of movement, the works excel in the varied contrasts between rough and smooth and shiny and matt surfaces. The creative process has been described as analogous to peeling fruit, but this is oversimplification: the crux of the matter is having the artistic vision to determine which fruit lies inside a particular stone and responding authentically.

Fran explains that this year’s annual exhibition will, “feature the work of Joram Mariga, known as the father of Shona sculpture, and of five members of his family. Joram’s widow, Maud, has not allowed any of her late husband’s work to leave Zimbabwe since his death in 2000, so we feel very honoured to have the opportunity to celebrate his incredible legacy.” Walter Mariga, Joram’s son, will travel from Zimbabwe to represent the family.

Walter Mariga advised me that the stone itself tells him what to do. Stone sculpting is effectively as old as time, imbuing a gravitas and significance that emanates from the very stone itself which must be respected. It cannot be coincidence that we tend to build our more important buildings from stone…churches, and palaces, castles and cathedrals? And whose children did not collect rocks?

When one simply looks at and enjoys a piece of Shona sculpture it is all too easy to be seduced by their apparent simplicity and very evident smoothness and to fail to understand the amount of physical effort and sheer graft necessary to create these pieces, particularly with the harder stones. Sculptures with apertures that one can see through represent a particular technical challenge and are said to have special significance, leading to another more spiritual world. Finishing is achieved by laborious hand sanding with increasingly fine grades of sandpaper, the sculpture is then heated up and polished with wax.

ZimArt is a fascinating and delightful place to visit: one can immerse oneself in the artistic endeavours of a culture divorced from European traditions and enjoy a saunter around the beautiful grounds. Touching is allowed and picnics encouraged. The gallery is open daily from June 1 until Thanksgiving. All the works are for sale.

The annual exhibition runs from August 6th to September 4th. It will feature the work of the Mariga clan and those of the 50 other artists ZimArt represents.  I  705.939.6144

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