With remarkable ease and a sturdy grip, Lawrence Sandaramu, a Shona stone sculptor from Zimbabwe, presses the end of a dental tool just above the man's rounded cheekbone and carefully drills the final details into his dense springstone eyelids. Sandaramu is nearly finished with his piece, 'The Acrobat', which has since sold to an international buyer. The young Chitungwiza native was trained at the esteemed Chapungu gallery in Harare. He has since become a well-respected artist in the modern Shona art movement.
Shona sculpting is one of the most intrinsic facets to Zimbabwe's national identity. Traditionally based on spiritual beliefs and folkloric rituals of the majority Shona tribe, the sculpting practice has developed over the last few decades to adapt to changing demand.
"Styles began to separate as individual artists separated", explains Doug Dicker, a private Zimbabwe-based Shona-art buyer and distributor. "The art transformed in style towards greater realism and more craftsmanship."
In the 1950s, the style of Shona stone sculpting evolved under the guidance of Frank McEwen, the first director of the National Gallery in former Southern Rhodesia. McEwen trained Shona artists in a more contemporary idea of sculpting- one that would attract Western buyers to this indigenous African art form. He encouraged the sculptors to trust their instincts and use traditional carving methods to produce contemporary forms.
Today's Shona style is also the result of better tools supplied from abroad, a renewed and rising international interest in African art, and a third generation of modern Shona sculptors, like Sandaramu, who are more willing to experiment. Using Zimbabwe's abundant rock minerals - verdite, cobalt, fruit serpentine, leopard rock and opal- the artists blend abstract symbolism with traditionally common themes like expressions of wildlife, family, nature, daily life activities and metamorphosis.
The most fundamental source of inspiration in Shona stone sculpting remains the same: exploring the intimate link between the physical and the spiritual worlds. Portraying the human condition has always been a central component, but with the fluctuating economy Zimbabwe's sculptors must continually adapt to increasing consumer demand.
The solo exhibition My World – Mugariro by Dominic Benhura can be seen until October 19, 2008 in the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden.