Zim crisis chronicled in stone at sculpture colony

Maicos Mugugu chisels a block of serpentine stone, carving what he says will become a sculpture of a family pulling together, with a message of the importance of unity in Zimbabwe.

“Together we stand, divided we fall. When we quarrel, we cannot stand. But when we are in good books, working together, everything will go well,” he explains from under a msasa tree, leaves budding in fiery reds and yellows in Zimbabwe’s spring.

Mugugu hasn’t seen a customer in months, but still he chips away at the stone, expanding his collection on one of dozens of patches of land on a former tobacco farm known as Tengenenge.

He says his work has no political themes, but his scupltures displayed on stumps of wood show families uniting to overcome difficulty, and lovers embracing not in passion, but to overcome sorrow.

His most striking figures are sandstone towers, carved into faces heavy with sadness.

“This is a chief,” Mugugu explained.
“He is sad because his people do not have enough to eat, and he does not know what to do.”

Similar themes of Zimbabwe’s economic collapse resonate across other sculptors’ works: farmers whose heads sprout into leaves, showing their hopes for their crops; parents weeping over small children; enormous busts with bewildered faces.

Sculpture has blossomed on Tengenenge since 1966, when the world slapped sanctions on the white-minority Rhodesian regime to press for democratic rule.

The farm’s owner, Tom Blomefield, turned to sculpture and gave tools to the farm workers to try their hand.

What emerged was a new style of sculpture from the hands of the farm workers and artisans who over the years sought out Tengenenge as a place to live, work and sell their creations.

Their sleek lines of polished stone with a Brancusi elegance, accented with rough edges of natural rock in striking acts of balance made the sculptors a hit internationally after independence in 1980, when world markets re-opened to Zimbabwe.

But in recent years selling has become increasingly difficult for the 100 or so sculptors living at Tengenenge. The farm lies a two-hour drive north of the capital Harare, the last 40km down a dirt road now bisected by a Chinese chrome mine.

A neighbouring tobacco farm was resettled under President Robert Mugabe’s land reforms that upended the nation’s critical farm sector, leaving small-scale farmers struggling to make ends meet by growing patches of maize. Tobacco barns, tractors, tills and other equipment lie covered in dust and cobwebs.

But their problems turned even more dramatic last year, when the surrounding district of Guruve erupted in political violence following inconclusive presidential elections between Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai.

Many of the artists were beaten, they say, for refusing to attend rallies held by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s economy unraveled as hyperinflation soared to multiples of billions. Without customers, most sculptors resorted to growing their own maize and hunting for sable. Some went to the Han-se mine next door to turn their skill with rock to mining chrome.

Blomefield, now a grandfatherly figure with a Santa Claus beard, last year gave up living on Tengenenge and sold the farm to one of Zimbabwe’s most successful sculptors, Dominic Benhura, who is subsidising the sculptors’ work.

“We used to get in a good month 30 to 40 visitors. Now we are lucky to get even one customer on a weekend,” said Blessed Kaweka, Tengenenge’s sales manager.

“Most of our business is exported. We depend on the tourist industry,” which has fizzled, he added.

Kaweka, like most Zimbabweans, is counting on the unity government to stabilise the economy and bring back business—an optimism reflected in a few of the sculptors’ work.

Prosper Chiroodza, a 29-year-old who also performs in bira rain dances for nearby villages, carves images of his dancers reaching for the sky with faces toward heaven, calling for better times.

Mixed among the bira scenes, he has football players leap through the air, with goalkeepers flipping to catch a ball, inspired by the World Cup next year in neighbouring South Africa, the first time the tournament will be held on the African continent.

“I am looking for 2010. If God believes in us, maybe I will go to South Africa to sell my work,” he said.

“These images will give people a different idea about Zimbabwe, about Africa.”—Sapa-AFP

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