The Shona tribe has always had a captivating relationship with the ground, rocks and minerals there off. Their ancestors are known to have used the ground and stones for spiritual and cultural purposes. They also used stone creatively in building, thus Zimbabwe was once known for its great stone cities and is now home to numerous stone ruins such as Great Zimbabwe, Khami and Danamombe. These stone carving skills have been passed from one person to another over generations. The skill is taught within biological families or shared within communities.
The rock mostly used in Shona stone sculptures is Serpentine rock. Serpentine is a form of sedimentary rock, which is abundantly available in Zimbabwe due to the Great Dyke. Serpentine rocks are found in a variety of colours which assist in accentuating the beauty of the stone sculptures. The dense stones have a uniform structure that makes them ideal for sculpting. They can be brown, green, white, molted or spotted. The stones are mined in open quarries by the locals from stone sculpting communities or the artists themselves.
Most Shona stone sculptures are inspired by Shona mythology and they often represent cultural aspects that were once passed on in rituals or folklore. The sculptures frequently take the form of spirits and animals. Sculptures often have a hole in the middle of the sculpture which is interpreted as a portal to the spirit world. Other sculptures have a swirling form as spirits are thought of as whirling winds. However, with the evolution of Shona stone sculptures artists have started making more contemporary and abstract pieces.
Different artists choose different themes according to their social, family and spiritual backgrounds, however there are common themes in Shona stone sculptures. These common themes are mainly totems, family and spirit beings.
Totems are a part of Shona culture, heritage and history. They are based on an individual’s character and were often linked to animal characteristics. Examples of totems within the Shona culture can be Hungwe (African Fish Eagle), Shumba (Lion), Mhofu (Eland) and Hove (Fish). One may swim very well thus they are given the name Hove (Fish). This name is passed on to their descendants as a totem. Totems are used to identify relatives and are also very important as they are used in communicating with the ancestors. One calls to ancestors with the same totem as theirs.
Family is viewed as very important in the Shona culture. It is viewed as the backbone of society as people rely greatly on family members to care for each other. Sculptors often show different family members and their relation to each other. These sculptures show the value of family relations in the Shona culture. The most common family figure that is depicted by these sculptures is that of mothers or women.
Njuzu are spirits that inhabit streams, rivers and lakes. Njuzu is a mermaid in the English language. In Shona spirituality the mermaid is known to help in training people who are called to be traditional healers. It is often said people have a calling can be carried by mermaids into deep waters and return as healers, only if their families do not mourn their disappearance but accept it as a calling and perform required rituals that ensure their safe return.
Stone mining is the first step in the creation of Shona stone sculptures. Most sculptors prefer to be part of the mining in order to select the stone. The process of stone mining is very important to most artists as they say the stone has to speak to them. In the making of Shona stone sculptures the relationship between the artist and the stone is of great value. There are some sculptors who prefer certain sacred areas for mining. One example of such sacred land where the stones are mined is Nyanga Mountains in the Eastern Highlands of the country. Some of the stones are also mined from Mvurwi, Shamva, Kwekwe, Guruve and in Chiweshe which is north of Harare. Stone mining is small scale and often in open cast quarries. The mining of the stone and sales of the stone sculptures has become a source of income for many communities.
After mining, the stones are then carried to the venues where the artists work from. These working spaces could be close to where the stones are mined or they could be kilometers away and may need to be transported. Other artists prefer working from the mountains in which they mine the rock, as they note the spirits in the mountains guide their craft thus the need to stay connected.
The sculptor often starts by sketching the perceived design with chalk or charcoal. Shona stone sculptures are mostly made from chisel and hammer. The sculptor starts to chip away the rough sections of the stone shaping it into the desired shape. Different sizes and shapes of hammers are used at different stages in the process. When the shape of the sculpture begins to show files are used to bring out the finer details of the sculpture. In some instances heavy duty machinery and iron are used to support heavier and larger sculptures.
Once the vision of the sculpture is visible, the sculptor may start polishing the stone. Sand paper is used to make the surface smooth. The sculpture is washed and polished layer by layer as it is made smoother and smoother. After making the sculpture smooth the sculptor moves on to adding melted wax for more shine. The sculptures are also warmed on open fire or with a blow touch allowing it to soak into the stone. These layers of wax are buffered in order to bring out a shinier look. Once the waxing is done the sculpture is complete.
Shona stone sculptures exist in both old school and modern forms. Sculptors make sculptures unique to themselves and this is mostly due to their technique and the themes they select for their art. Shona stone sculptures are becoming more desirable on international platforms and it seems their market value will only increase with the evolution of the Shona stone sculpture movement.