Art of Zimbabwe

Art of Zimbabwe

Art includes decorative esthetics applied to many aspects of life, including art objects as such, utilitarian objects, objects used in religion, warfare, in propaganda, and in many other spheres. Within this broad arena, Zimbabwe has several identifiable categories of art. It is a hallmark of African cultures in general that art touches many aspects of life, and most tribes have a vigorous and often recognisable canon of styles and a great range of art-worked objects. These can include masks, drums, textile decoration, beadwork, carving, sculpture, ceramic in various forms, housing, and the person themselves. Decoration of the body in permanent ways such as scarification or tattoo or impermanently as in painting the body for a ceremony is a common feature of African cultures.

Spoken or musical art is also a prominent part of African cultures generally. Various instruments including drums, lamellophones and stringed bows have been used in Zimbabwe, while oratory, poetry, fable telling, praise singing and tribal ritual chants are also prominent.

It is useful to examine Zimbabwean art through time, by area, by main tribal division and as indicative of recent historic and political changes.

Prehistory and Pre-colonial history

In prehistory the area was widely settled by !Kung peoples, the so-called Khoi or San, Hottentot or Bushmen people, who were hunter gatherers. They often lived in caves and made various artworks, including beading from shells for personal decoration, incising designs on ostrich shells and utilitarian objects such as clay water straws, and also on the cave walls themselves. These dynamic and varied cave paintings date from around 10000 BCE and depict humans hunting many kinds of animals, warfare between humans, mystical and other unidentified marks, landscape, and ceremonies where the humans are obviously decorated or in costume. The colours vary from black through brown, red, ochre, yellow and white. The pigments used are unknown, though presumably contain a mix of local materials such as earth oxides, fat, vegetable juices and possibly fluids from larval insects. Certainly they have lasted for thousands of years.

Their descendants, who live mainly in Botswana and Namibia, sing a variety of uniquely structured and tuneful songs, accompanied sometimes by a plucked or struck bow. They also have a repertoire of dances, and there is no reason to suspect their ancestors did not do the same thing.

These Stone Age people were supplanted by Iron Age Nguni-derived pastoral and farming peoples migrating in from the east and north around 2000 years ago, who became the ancestors of the WaRozwi/Barotse people and by derivation the AmaShona peoples. The art of these people can be seen in many decorated first-fired clay pots, where typically a repeated dhlo-dhlo (linear herringbone) motif or similar edging was applied. Other artwork is harder to source, though it can assumed they decorated the body and had beadwork and other art styles related to typical styles of the East and Central African Nguni peoples. A recurrent motif in Shona art is the transformation of a human into an animal of some kind.

At around the same time as the earlier incursions of these Bantu-type people (200BCE) there were sporadic expeditions by South-East coastal dwellers, probably via the Savi/Save river or over the Inyanga/Chimanimani mountain passes, into the Zimbabwe area to obtain gold for trade with Arab traders trading as far south as the mouth of the Savi. They built stone forts extending into the interior at one day's march from each other, with the final one being the complex now known as Great Zimbabwe. To service the coastal trade a town called Sofala was established at the mouth of the Sofala river on the east coast. It had its heydey in around 700 AD/CE and served the Mwenemutapa/Monomotapa Kingdom, whose capital was Great Zimbabwe. Arabs took up residence in Sofala around 900AD/CE.

Archaeology at Zimbabwe has shown several distinct phases of building and styles of stonework. It is likely the original complex was rather functional - essentially a fort and trading post only, and the later and more elaborate building occurred when the complex became the central administrative and royal centre of activity for the area. Some of the architectural features are probably linked with styles of coastal Swahili architecture and some are uniquely local. Chinese pottery shards, ivory, glass objects, local gold objects, arabic and local beads, copper ingots, iron ingots and other trade items have been found at Zimbabwe. The herringbone and other stepped linear froms of decoration in the walls are a feature of the most recent stonework. Similar stonework is seen at Khami ruins, a fort built on the way to Zimbabwe. However, the most impressive and unique feature of Zimbabwe are the huge soapstone birds, the so-called Zimbabwe birds, depicting a bird of prey perched on a zig-zag base motif. These birds are possibly based on the Bateleur eagle or maybe a vulture species and might have had something to do with a religious cult or indicative of a totem animal for the ruling people at the time. Most of these sculptures are still in the country but one is in South Africa where it still adorns Groote Schuur an official residence, once the home of Cecil Rhodes. Another unexplained motif at Zimbabwe, which like the birds were mounted on the perimeter wall of the Great Enclosure, were stelae or tall narrow rectilinear pillars of rock (probably natural fracture artefacts) set at intervals round the top of the wall. The Zimbabwe bird is the most prominent motif of the current Zimbabwe flag.

Amandebele incursions

The origin of Amandebele speaking peoples in southern Zimbabwe received its main impetus from settlement around 1840 under Mzilikazi, a Khumalo chief who rebelled against Zulu rule. However, it is likely that such tribes began crossing the Limpopo sporadically from about 1800 onwards. Amandebele conflict with the Amashona drove them northwards into what was dubbed in colonial times Mashonaland. These Amandebele/Matabele peoples had several distinct art forms differing from the Amashona: in pottery styles, bead aprons and headpieces, house decoration, carving and decoration of war implements such as clubs/knobkerries and shields.

Modern Art Movements

Art in Zimbabwe lost most its spiritual power with the conversion of the majority of the population to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Missionaries harmed the local cultures by demanding destruction of anything they regarded as anti-Christian, in particular masks or carvings thought to have votive powers, that is, to be appealing to some god that was not the Christian one. By the second world war most art objects produced in Zimbabwe were simply that: produced for tourist and local white settler consumption. With the advent of guns, animal skins prepared and decorated with small panels of other hides also began to appear in the early 20th century, as well as 'karosses' or fur blankets influenced by BaTchwana styles from Botswana to the south.

In the 1940's a Zimbabwe philanthropist named Jairos Jiri began to teach disabled people various artistic skills and centralised their production for sale in several outlets nation-wide. These proved very popular and returned money to persons otherwise excluded from normal commercial activity. Jairos Jiri centres remain an important part of the artistic output in Zimbabwe. Typical items include tiles, tiled tables and wall plaques, basketwork, beading, carvings in wood and stone, jewellery and paintings.

Chapungu Sculpture Park in Harare is an important locality for display of (mainly) Shona sculptors and carvers. Another [ Chapungu Sculpture Park] was created in 2007 in the United States, along with a gallery, in Loveland, Colorado. Since antiquity local artists have been using the steatite/soapstone deposits of the eastern Zimbabwe mountain ranges to produce artworks showing, among other things, the common Shona theme of animal/human inter-morphosis. These works became much larger under the patronage of white collectors in the 1960's (though the Zimbabwe birds of antiquity are massive) and now it is common to see monumental soapstone sculptures both nationally and internationally.

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