The history of Shona stone sculpture is greatly linked to the history of Zimbabwe. It is one that is charged with spirituality, mythical beings, and narratives of great kingdoms. Shona ancestors are known to have built great stone cities in numerous parts of southern Africa. The ruins of these cities and artifacts that were found in the ruins are really a showmanship of the stone carving skills of the Shona people. The Shona tribe is comprised of Bantu speaking people with homogenous cultures. The main groups amongst them would be the Karanga, Manyika, Zezuru, Tonga, Ndau and Korekore. The majority of the modern day Shona people are found in Zimbabwe but a considerable number can also be found in South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana. Their history is very captivating.
Shona stone sculpture is a name given to modern day sculptures made by the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe means dzimba dzemambwe (house of stone) in the Shona language. The name is derived from Great Zimbabwe, which was a large city built by the Karanga people of the Hungwe totem in the 11th century. Hungwe is the African fish eagle and is said to likely be the “Zimbabwe bird” found in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and is said to be the first totem of the Shona. Great Zimbabwe is a sixty acre city built out of carved stone. The city is said to have flourished from the 11th to the 15th century. It housed about 18 000 people at its peak. Stone artifacts made by the Shona are said to date back to 2000 BC. The Shona were also known to greatly believe in the relationship between people, animals, the spirit world and stone/ the ground. Shona stone carvings in the time of Great Zimbabwe were always linked to spirituality and artifacts were hardly ever exported as they were seen as sacred.
Shona religion glorifies a god who is called “Mwari” and is also known as “Musika vanhu”. A higher being that is the creator of man and all things. The Shona believe they can communicate with this great being “Mwari” through their ancestors. Shona ancestors are said to be a bridge between the living and God. Though the Shona do not worship their ancestors they do often seek to appease them to secure their protection. One of the greatest fears of the most pure Shona believers is to have the ancestors turn their backs on them leaving one with no protection or avenue to communicate with the creator.
The commercialisation of Shona stone sculptures has seen sculptures being sold all over Europe, America and Asia. They are exported to countries all over the world and they have become some of the best value for money pieces anyone could add to their collection. The Shona stone sculpture movement can be viewed as the evolution of the stone carving culture of the Shona. Shona stone sculptures are mostly made from serpentine rock. It can be found in a variety of colours very dark green, grey, black, pale green, deep blue almost black white veins, blue blackish and has an oily feeling. The “Great Dyke” in Zimbabwe provides most of the rock. The great dyke is geological feature which is mineral rich where serpentine formed decades ago and has come to a surface. It spread over 550 Kilometers across Zimbabwe.
More than ten million Zimbabweans live all over the globe. Zimbabweans are fairly adventurous people often traveling to learn or experience new cultures but the 1990’s saw a spike in migration to the decline of the countries economy. Economic instability could be viewed as one of the greatest reasons the Shona Sculpture movement has gained momentum. Most of the younger generations of sculptors see this skill as the only possible means of survival. This has largely led to the increase in exporting of the Shona stone sculptures. It has also led to the development of innovative contemporary and abstract art to fit the market.