Thursday, 18 June 2009

African Abstraction and the Zimbabwean Art Movement

African Abstraction | Zimbabwean Art Movement

Zimbabwean stone sculpture is such an interesting aspect of contemporary South Eastern African art. It emerged in the 1980’s as the country became the last African nation to gain independence. The word Zimbabwe means great stone house so it is apt that stone sculpture is the art that most represents modern Zimbabwe.

Sylvester Mubayi Bernard Matemera Nicholas Mukomberanwa

The Art Movement of the 1980’s spearheaded by Tom Blomfield was known as the Shona Movement and the original founders were Sylvester Mubayi, John Takawira, Nicholas Mukomberanwa and Bernard Matemera. All were austere proud men, each in turn, laying down stringent guidelines on how the work was to be created, the tight meticulous subject matter with clear references to the stones themselves. This uncompromising approach to the subject of art was destined to be short lived and after a while a new breed of vibrant, intelligent artists emerged. Suppression always causes decent and the knock-on effect is inevitably a positive progression. The more rules there are the greedier the anarchist becomes, gorging on the rebellion of youth.

Brighton Sango The Eagle 1985 The Bird 1992

The first wave of mutiny came in the form of Brighton Sango. Born in 1958 in Guruve, Northern Zimbabwe he is now considered the most important member of the dissident movement of the Second Generation of sculptors. His work has become an important source of interesting and lively debates on the subject of the future of Zimbabwean sculpture. These debates have echoed into ideas of possible racial equality and a global artistic liberation of African nations through Abstract Art.

Brighton, bravely lead from the front and broke from tradition and moved into the world of abstraction. Right from the start Brighton was keen to establish his own unique style and forge his individuality. His early work is reminiscent of the rebellious British Vorticist Group of the early 20th Century that broke away from the rather decadent and kitsch Bloomsbury Group but the Continent of Africa is no stranger to visual abstraction. Many ancient artworks from the continent have tended to favour visual abstraction over naturalistic representation. This is because many artworks challenge the stylistic norms.

Moderism in the Tribal Form | Tribal Gathering, London

Ancient Egyptian art, especially paintings, lean towards the naturalistic depiction of an object making good use of the highly abstracted and regimented visual canons. This is repeated in the use of different colours to represent the qualities and characteristics of an individual being drawn. It was the African influence on European artistic ideologoy at the being of the last century that created the wave of rebellion within art. The Occidental ‘soft’ Primivatism of the Impressionist Movement, which influenced the colourful Exoticism of Paul Gauguin and it is African abstraction has been running all the way through. Without a doubt Africa has influenced every Movement within art, stretching as far as Russia and playing a pivotal role in the work produced by sculptor Ossip Zadkine and friend El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich and effectively in their Suprematism Movement. Spain was not immune as Miro took up the batton with his abstraction within the Surrealist Movement and then later to Mondrain and the Modernist Movement. What goes around comes around and it is now all these aspects of abstraction and modernism and there many intellectual guises which are slowly beginning to filter back to the continent at a time when they are most needed.

Brighton Sango had no formal Western training but was highly intelligent and intuitive enough to understand that African Abstraction was the only true way to gain international artistic emancipation. Other artists in his position have chosen another approach mixing the media and using materials other than the stone to express their ideas. Personally, I believe that Brighton’s purist approach is the most coherent and effective. Tragically, in August 1995 Brighton Sango took his own life. His work speaks with great eloquence and his legacy will continue.

Who would have thought that contemporary African activism would come in the form of a rock and shaped by the movement of the stone itself? Over a decade has past since Sango’s passing but little has changed in the attitudes towards women in Zimbabwe. Traditionally women have expressed their artistic talent in batiks, weaving, lace-making, fabric design and embroidery.

Perlagia Mutyavaviri and her works

His work and ideas have been championed by another artistic rebel but this time, a female artist. She is perhaps the most gifted and talented stone sculptor of her generation, Perlagia Mutyavaviri. Her work looks like twisted metal but it is in fact hard Zimbabwean stone carved and created by hand.

Born in Harare in 1977, she took up sculpture at the turn of the Millenium at the age of 24 and now in her early thirties the hurdles Perlagia has already climbed are a good indication of the magnitude of the required commitment needed to succeed in this patriarchal environment. She is fully aware that an artist can be an agent for change regardless of sexuality and is a great successor of the late Colleen Madamombe.

True Independence has yet to be gained but Abstract Art will play the greatest role in defining the new Nations of Africa. This will give rise to the respect of the individual and place a value of life lived on this sometimes harsh continent.

Author: Joe Pollitt


N.B. For more information about Zimbabwean Sculpture speak to Vivienne @ http://

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