When I lived, laughed and walked with some of the world’s best sculptors
In 1993-1994, between our departure from old Europe and until we moved to Canada, my best friend and partner, Lindy Amato, and I spent a little over six months in Austral Africa, traveling throughout Zimbabwe, Lindy’s motherland, but also neighbouring Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana.
During many of these glorious African days I had the unique privilege to meet some of Zimbabwe’s best artists of the time, visiting them in their workshops around Harare with my old Land Rover Series III, sometime helping them as best as I could with carrying heavy carving stones or giving them lifts around the city. These were insouciant and joyful times of endless discoveries, spent enjoying their charming company and gradually building many friendships along the way, an indelible supply of souvenirs and an extraordinary collection of some of the best sculptures ever produced, which now keep me company on more solitary days.
This long overdue post is a brief recollection of unforgettable memories from these glorious days spent with some of the very best first- and second-generation Shona artists I once had the fleeting privilege to call “my friends”.
Where should I begin this very personal story? … Maybe with Lindy’s cousin David Weinberg (Zl) who, like Lindy, grew up in Harare, had become a fellow Belgian compatriot later in life and had opened the very first Shona Sculpture gallery in Antwerp in the late ‘80s. David was a true mukiwa at heart and longed endlessly with understandable nostalgia for long lost younger years, running wild into the rocky hills of the Matopos, the savannah grasslands of Hwange and the welcoming streams of Nyanga when Zimbabwe’s summers granted little reprieve.
Before leaving Belgium and moving back to Zimbabwe, David had introduced us to the fabulous collection of Shona sculptures he had been exhibiting in his Antwerp Maseda Gallery. He had immersed himself into the intricacies of African art as well as African geology and had become an undeniable specialist in both subjects. “If you were to make a list of the twenty best sculptors alive today, half of them would be from Zimbabwe!” he had claimed, with evident insight and acuity. His magnificent art gallery was a testimony to the prolific creativity of these artists from this little know African country. There, in the intimacy of his gallery, I had admired glorious pieces by Bernard Matemera, Kennedy Musekiwa, Lazarus Takawira, Brighton Sango, Gladman Zinyeka and a few other sculptors I had no idea I would one day have the privilege to meet when we would ourselves travel back to Lindy’s birthplace.
John, Bernard and Lazarus Takawira
We arrived in Zimbabwe in October 1993, with the intention of traveling for approximately six months throughout Austral Africa. Zimbabwe, where Lindy had family and where we reunited with David, became our primary point of anchorage. There, we spent a lot of time with David and many of his local friends, but also with Lindy’s uncle and aunt, Sadoc (Zl) and Vivianne Codron in their lovely Avondale house. Sadoc and Vivianne were truly wonderful to us and their generosity had no limit. Sadoc was a larger-than-life character with a presence that reminded me of Marlon Brando in the Godfather. He was one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest tobacco merchants and invited us a number of times to his lavish downtown Harare office where, amongst other treasures, I often admired three small carvings that adorned the wall opposite his desk. Sadoc was born in the Congo — at the time called Zaire, but sometimes still known as the ‘Belgian Congo’ by many of my compatriots — and we of course always spoke in French together. « Ce sont des sculptures de John Takawira » he pointed out to me, « Le meilleur sculpteur de sa génération ». I had not difficulties believing that indeed John Takawira had been the most prominent of Zimbabwe’s first-generation sculptors. These three small carvings, just a few inches each, were the first works by John Takawira I had ever seen, and I must confess that, as it is often said, it was pretty much artistic love at first sight. I immediately fell under the spell of John’s unique talent and inquired where I would be able to see more of his work and perhaps purchase one of his pieces. Sadly, Sadoc told us that John had passed away a few years prior and that none of his work was available outside perhaps some private collections and of course, the National Gallery.
Understanding my disappointment, a few weeks later, David invited us to meet John Takawira’s younger brothers — Lazarus and Bernard. By that time Lindy and I had purchased an old Land Rover Series III, imported from England in the ‘60s and rebuilt to a very lovely condition 25 years later. I still vividly remember driving out of town to Bernard’s secluded farm on the road to Nyanga in our blue Land Rover. A few years prior, Bernard had been appointed as an agricultural advisor to the government and we were told that Robert Mugabe had personally rewarded him for his services with a large piece of land on the outskirts of Harare, where he had established his workshop and outdoor gallery.
Like John, both Bernard and Lazarus where sculptors in their own rights. As it often happens in Zimbabwe, brothers and cousins would often share a workshop, work together in harmony, share stones, tools and ideas and develop unique skills and styles. Bernard’s work, exhibited around his farm, was reminiscent of the small pieces I had admired in Sadoc’s office, but in my mind were not quite of the same quality. John’s unique approach to “revealing the spirit encased in each stone” was somewhat visible in Bernard’s work, but sadly not with the same talent. Bernard’s pieces were very good, it would be absolutely unfair to claim that they were not, but they simply did not speak to me in the way John’s creative world did. Furthermore, at that time, as a powerful official of the ZANU-PF, Bernard had become independently wealthy, evidently did not consider carving as his primary occupation and, as a consequence, his large pieces seemed to me to be rather scarce around his farm, and frankly overpriced.
A few days later, we joined David again for a visit, this time to Lazarus’ workshop near Harare. Like his brothers, Lazarus was a big man, but decidedly a lot less aloof than Bernard and quite a bit more jovial, friendlier and talkative. They had the same imposing statures, but certainly not the same natures. Although well respected, Lazarus had never held any high position in the government and consequently was a lot more welcoming and down to earth. As much as Bernard always appeared cold and distant, spending time with Lazarus was an absolute pleasure. I often visited his workshop and while I admired his work almost as much as his personality, I always found it to be slightly too systematic. Lazarus’ skills were clearly superior to those of his brother Bernard — perhaps even superior to those that John may have possessed years prior — but he certainly lacked the somewhat instinctive originality that John always exhibited in his own work. While Bernard took sculpting as a side activity to his government position, Lazarus was a full-time artist. We always had a lovely time chatting together as he showed me around his workshop on a few occasions. “I only sculpt women,” he once confessed. “There is nothing more important in this world. None of us would get to be born if it were not for women!” he said laughing abundantly. I told him that I certainly understood — as did most artists since the origin of time and beyond. I told him that when I lived in Paris, I often visited the Musée D’Orsay were a famous French painter called Gustave Courbet had painted L’origine du monde (The Origin of the World), an exceedingly controversial painting at the time, and still very much so today. Women have always been the central theme in visual arts, and always will be. We certainly agreed on this entirely and clearly shared the same passion, even if of course Lazarus did not have the first idea who Gustave Courbet might have been or his significance in European painting. I told him that although the concept of the “primeval fertile woman” was indeed shared amongst so many artists since the dawn of humanity, his carved interpretations were certainly quite different from Courbet’s far more “realistic” approach.
Lazarus mostly sculpted female figures with contrasting polished bodies and rough unfinished hair. His work was beautiful, appealing, quite delicate and certainly more affordable than what Bernard had showed us a few days earlier. Sadly, I felt that it was also slightly too repetitive in nature. I guess there are only so many ways you can carve female faces. Adding to this hypothetical limitation, was the fact that often Zimbabwean artists, even amongst the most creative, once they had reached a certain fame and found a style that bought them commercial success, often opted to (re)produce hundreds of similar pieces that ultimately ended up losing most of their originality. Henry Munyaradzi, with his flat expressionless faces and circular eyes, was a good example of this systemic approach I felt to be detrimental to the quality of his work, and certainly a reason why I never purchased any of his pieces. Years later, Colleen Madamombe, a brilliant artist herself, paradoxically fell into the same creativity trap of ‘castrating’ commercial success. As soon as she realized that her “fat mamas” were in high demand, she produced an endless collection of very similar sculptures — all very lovely but also lacking obvious unicity. To add insult to injury, often, to maximize financial success, renowned artists would end up employing a slew of young apprentices who would carve and form most pieces, simply leaving the finishing touches to their artistic masters. This of course was not particular to Zimbabwean artists. Almost all great masters from Leonardo da Vinci to Rembrandt used “petites mains” to help in their “ateliers”.
Although I very much enjoyed Lazarus as a person each time I visited him, and found his work to be as lovely and engaging as his personality, I still longed for the work of his elder
s assistance, and undoubtably as an exceptional favour, I was indeed able to purchase from that man a fabulous early masterpiece by John Takawira called “African Queen”. And what a piece! Unarguably one of the very best and largest pieces John had ever carved. I still remember Bernard’s astonishment when, a few days later, I showed him that sculpture by his late brother. “Where did you find that?” he said, as if I had broken into the National Gallery and stolen one of Zimbabwe’s best masterpieces! I could certainly hear in his voice some bewilderment as well as a slight touch of discountenance. It is only when I told him the story and the way Lazarus had helped me that his agitation subsided. I told him that, in addition to this superb piece by his brother, I had been able to acquire two other exceptional sculptures. An impressive 150-pound sculpture by Kennedy Musekiwa and, more importantly, a small early “Blind Man” in green opal carved by Bernard Matemera. I certainly could not believe my good fortune and told him I obviously could never express sufficient gratitude to Lazarus to have allowed me to start my personal collection with a Takawira, a Matemera and a Musekiwa — all in a single day! Each piece of course ended up costing a small fortune, I must confess, but to me being able to enjoy these exceptional artists for the rest of my life was certainly well worth the sacrifice.
While thanks to Lazarus Takawira I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase one of the very best versions of Matemera’s “blind period”, we never got the privilege to meet Bernard Matemera himself while traveling throughout Zimbabwe in 1993 and 1994 — something that I will eternally regret. We of course visited the National Gallery in Harare a number of times, where I was able to admire his peculiar work, but unfortunately never managed to visit him. Sadly, by the time we returned to Zimbabwe, to my great disappointment, he had passed away as well. It is always particularly difficult to encapsulate the scope of the work produced by Bernard Matemera in a few words. I used to say that he was to African art what Salvator Dali was to European surrealism — a brilliant and unique comet in a sky where too many starts often shine of the very same light. Like Salvator Dali or Picasso, Matemera was incredibly unconventional and prolific. His art was unmistakably imbedded in African legends and cosmology and at the same time almost experimental. Matemera was so talented, so fertile, so creative and his style so different from anything else, that he still remains today totally unmatched and will forever stand on his own as one of the most talented sculptors of the twentieth century, if not the most inventive.
Kennedy Musekiwa, Sam Chinyeka, Tamuka Njanji and Brighton Mutongwizo
Missing Bernard Matemera will forever remain a major regret. On the other hand, after acquiring one of Kennedy’s pieces from that “Englishman” I got many opportunities to spend days visiting Kennedy Musekiwa’s workshop in Chitungwiza. After buying that fantastic piece with the help of Lazarus Takawira, I asked around if I it would be possible to meet Kennedy himself. Sam and Albert Chineka, two of the local Avondale artists, offered to accompany me to Kennedy’s Chitungwiza gallery. I took with me the sculpture I had just acquired. I still remember how delighted Kennedy was to reunite briefly with that early piece. It brought him great joy to see that I had managed to unearth one of his early sculptures, a piece he had not seen for many years. It looked to me very much like a bending athlete, but Kennedy had called it his “Philosopher”, explaining that it was a man flexing muscles of the mind rather than engaging in the exercises of the flesh.
The sculpture was a bit tarnished after many years of battling the elements since it had been placed in the backyard of the English gentleman who had acquired it years prior. It clearly needed some polishing, tender love and care. Since Kennedy’s workshop was quite distant from the Avondale house where we were staying, Sam offered to restore it to its original splendour, and worked on it and on the other two pieces for a couple of days.
To express my gratitude, I in turn purchased a number of Sam’s own sculptures, which were themselves remarkable and a few of which have remained amongst the favourites in my collection.
In the following months, I would often visit Kennedy and his cousins, Tamuka Njanji and Brighton Mutongwizo, in their joint Chitungwiza workshop, each time unable to resist buying a couple more pieces as soon as they were completing them — including a couple in this peculiar burgundy stone that Kennedy was one of the only Shona sculptors to utilize.
Kennedy at the time was already quite famous internationally, and worked with a variety of totally unique stones, but despite his growing reputation he remained incredibly humble and accessible. He called David, Lindy’s cousin, his “brother” and, I must say, that he was always generous, kind and welcoming towards me, even when I arrived unexpectedly and interrupted his work. Kennedy had without a doubt the most agile hands I had ever seen. His exceedingly delicate style, particularly the way he effortlessly carved lips and eyes, always fascinated me. I often stood watching him sculpt and told him of my admiration for his absolute mastery. He would then shrug his shoulders as if this was not any more complex than lacing his shoes and often responded: “Anyone can do it. It’s easy. I can teach you if you want,” not realizing how unique his skills truly were. Despite being amongst the most sophisticated and unmistakably unique of all Zimbabwean artists of the time, Kennedy always delighted me with his simplicity and joyous demeanour.
Gladman, Thomas and Jetro Zinyeka
While John Takawira and Bernard Matemera were undoubtedly the most talented of the first-generation of Shona sculptors — each with their own styles — a few years later, Gladman Zinyeka’s virtuosity lifted him for a few short years head and shoulders above all artists of the second generation — perhaps with Kennedy Musekiwa, his own brother Thomas Zinyeka and cousin Jethro Zinyeka not too far behind. If Gladman had not died in 2001 at the young age of 39, I am convinced that he perhaps would have become the most famous of all Zimbabwean artists, and one of the very best sculptors to have ever lived. His skills and creativity where unmatched, as was the diversity of the work he produced. While John Takawira worked primarily with Serpentine, Kennedy Musekiwa with a variety of sometimes unusual stones, Gladman at the time worked almost exclusively with Springstone — a stone that I personally found to be far more organic than other stones. “Springstone is breathing. You can see it. You can feel it,” he said. “It is a stone with a texture that is not quite as smooth as Serpentine, but that is a lot better at celebrating the human nature.” Certainly, it was a stone that worked beautifully at expressing the profound humanity that was always at the very heart of Gladman’s work.
As far as I remember, Gladman had a peculiar and powerful aura surrounding him. He was friendly but also intelligent, intense and even slightly intimidating, even as a young man. His piercing eyes reminded me of Patrice Lumumba, as did his personality. When I visited Gladman at his workshop, I often took photographs of his brother Thomas and cousin Jethro, often with some of Gladman’s pieces visible in the distance, but for some reason I realize today that I seem to have never taken a single picture of Gladman himself, perhaps because of his slightly intimidating presence.
While Gladman somehow outshined other artists by his talent, his younger brother Thomas and his cousin Jetro were also outstanding artists in their own rights. After spending many months in the company of the best artists of the time, I often wonder what was so special with the Zinyeka brothers that made them so outrageously talented? My instinctive feeling is that it was the presence, teaching, and charisma of Gladman that slowly percolated to his brothers and sisters. (Note: It is with great sadness that we learned the passing of Gladman a few years ago and of his brother Thomas more recently).
The story of Richard Muzarurwi will be the last of this blog entry. It is a story that is both emblematic of a continent and of an entire generation of talented young African men and women who lived in the ‘80s and ‘90s under the constant Damocles’ sword of AIDS and sadly never made it into old age. Even younger than Gladman, poor Richard died before he had hardly reached adulthood or fame — barely in his early thirties. “He got the ‘love’ disease,” as one of his friends told me years later — a cold blooded “love disease” of little love indeed that, at the time, was merciless and almost always a death sentence. It pains me to remember Richard today, so glorious, so elegant, so loving, so talented, so full of life. It pains me to imagine what he was destined to achieve, if his life had not been cut so short. Richard was very young and not well established when I met him in late 1993. He had a small workshop on the side of the road. Despite the inevitable grime of these dusty roads, he was always well dressed in immaculate clothes, always charming and constantly surrounded by a crowd of young men and women also in their twenties, all celebrating life and art, sadly unaware — as often young people are — of how precious both truly were. Richard’s life was perhaps short, and his work truncated far too early, but the beauty he created will forever remain. If not for his passing so early he would have undoubtedly grown into one of those African giants.
I could go on and on with more of these stories and wonderful memories of the artists I met during these years and, indeed, many of these stories would end up resonating in similar ways; lives of young — and not so young — talented artists who created absolute beauty with humility and nobility of the soul. Brilliant artists whose shining lights often faded far too soon. These were true African giants. I am proud to remember that for a few ephemeral days, I was privileged enough to walk in their footsteps.
A visit to my photography website will offer you a glimpse of a collection of some of my African photographs taken mostly in 1993 and 1994, but also later in 2011 with our son Noah. There is also on my website numerous pictures of the exceptional collection of Sculptures by first and second generation Shona Artists I have been fortunate to acquire over the years.
I also published two photography books, both under the title of “Diamonds from the sky” retracing these two voyages.
These books are available for purchase in two versions:
Additional Read: The Herald
In 1988, Newsweek magazine went as far as saying: “Shona sculpture is perhaps the most important art form to emerge from Africa this century.” Prince Charles has become a collector.
I also recommend this excellent article from Percy Svomuya published in the Mail & Guardian in June 2021: https://mg.co.za/friday/2021-06-04-in-praise-of-african-art-how-shona-sculpting-emerged/
Although I, of course, could not mention them all, here are a few more of the outstanding artists I had the pleasure to meet and work with at the time. My books and this blog entry are dedicated to them all.
Albert Chineka Chiurawa
Tago M. Tazvitya
… and many more …
Additional Read: The Herald