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A Conversation with Zimbabwean Artists Creating Shona Stone Sculptures that Celebrate Harmony of Art & Nature

The upcoming ZimSculpt exhibit at the Houston Botanic Garden will surround visitors with an exquisitely curated collection of more than 100 Zimbabwean Shona stone sculptures that celebrate the harmony of art and nature. To add to the visually stunning experience, two resident artists – Percy Kuta and Passmore Mupindiko – will be actively sculpting new masterpieces daily, providing visitors with a first-hand glimpse into the artistic process. A marketplace tent offering an additional 300 handcrafted sculptures for purchase provides a unique opportunity for visitors to take home smaller-sized pieces of incredible artwork for display in their own collections. ZimSculpt will be on display at the Garden from March 23 through June 2, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

With the opening just weeks away, ZimSculpt founder Vivienne Croisette shared her insights into why the award-winning exhibition has become such an international phenomenon and described how Shona sculpture has become the most collected type of African art in the world.

We also heard from artists Percy Kuta and Passmore Mupindiko about their passion for sculpting and helping visitors better understand the rich heritage reflected in the art form.

Q&A with Vivienne Croisette, Zimsculpt Founder

Tell us about the process of choosing the sculptures included in ZimSculpt.

VC: The process of selecting sculptures for ZimSculpt is a thorough and detailed curation journey. Over a period of seven months each year, we travel to various regions of Zimbabwe, personally visiting different areas and curating a diverse collection of sculptures that are crafted from locally sourced stones. This immersive experience allows us to connect with the artistic and cultural traditions of Zimbabwe. 

The carefully curated collection features both traditional and contemporary sculptures that showcase the unique beauty and diversity of Zimbabwean stones.  We are very particular about the sculptures we choose, ensuring that they represent the voices of over 300 Zimbabwean artists. Our thoughtful selection process aims to provide viewers with a comprehensive and immersive experience of Shona stone sculpture.

What is unique about Zimbabwean art? What sets it apart from other sculpture work?

VC: Zimbabwean art, particularly Shona stone sculpture, stands out because there is rich cultural storytelling embedded in each piece. The one-of-a-kind narratives carved into the stones reflect the everyday lifestyle in Zimbabwe and the profound connection to nature. The diversity of styles and textures, coupled with the exclusive use of hand tools, showcases a level of craftsmanship and visual intelligence that makes Zimbabwean art truly unique.

What type of stone is the art carved from?

VC: The art featured in ZimSculpt is carved from various types of serpentine and semi-precious stones. These stones, with their unique colors and textures, provide a canvas for artists to express their creativity. The sculptures often weigh several tons, underscoring the physical and artistic dedication required in their creation.

How do the exhibits benefit the Zimbabwean artists?

VC: Hosting international exhibits like ZimSculpt provides a platform for Zimbabwean artists, many from rural areas, to showcase their talent on a global stage. The exposure garnered from these exhibitions not only offers them a chance to earn income but also brings a tremendous sense of personal satisfaction. It allows these artists to know that their original sculptures have been enjoyed and appreciated by thousands of people around the world.

How does displaying the artwork in a natural setting, like the Houston Botanic Garden, enhance the experience for visitors?

VC: Drawing inspiration from everyday life in Zimbabwe, these artworks effortlessly blend with the natural surroundings of the garden. Positioned amidst the vibrant garden and the bayou that surrounds it, the exhibition uses the tranquil backdrop to help tell the how each sculpture was inspired by the natural environment. 

The beauty and essence of the sculptures are further enhanced by their strategic placement amidst the flora, creating a harmonious blend with the vivid colors of the flowers and the peacefulness of the gardens.

Describe the impact that including live artists has on the ZimSculpt exhibit. What is the value of seeing the sculptors in action?

VC: Promoting Shona sculptors is a core tenet of our mission. By providing a platform for live sculpting and fostering a deep connection between the audience and the creative process, we aim to not only enrich the viewer’s experience, but also contribute to the global recognition and appreciation of African artistic heritage.

Observing these skilled artists sculpt live using chisels, hammers, files, and sandpaper provides visitors with an intimate and firsthand view of the intricate sculpting process. This engagement goes beyond mere observation; it becomes a shared journey between the audience and the creative process.

As visitors witness the birth of a sculpture, they not only deepen their understanding of the artistry involved but also forge a personal connection with the artists and their craft. This rare opportunity allows patrons to appreciate the dedication, skill, and cultural richness encapsulated in each stone masterpiece.

Moreover, as visitors gain a profound appreciation for Shona stone sculpture, they become ambassadors for the art form. Spreading the word about the Shona sculpture movement becomes a testament to the beauty and significance of these creations. In doing so, they actively contribute to the recognition and success of Zimbabwean artists, ensuring their hard work and talent receive the acclaim deserved.

Why is it important for you to highlight Zimbabwean art and artists around the world, specifically in the U.S.?

VC: Highlighting Zimbabwean art and artists globally, particularly in the U.S., is a mission rooted in a desire to share the beauty, diversity, and cultural richness of Shona stone sculpture. By showcasing these masterpieces on an international stage, we aim to break down barriers, and promote cultural understanding. It’s a celebration of artistic talent transcending borders and an opportunity to bridge cultures through the universal language of art.

Q&A with Percy Kuta, sculptor

How did you learn to create stone sculptures? 

PK: At the age of 20, I embarked on a self-taught journey to learn how to sculpt despite my parents’ strong opposition to the idea of me becoming an artist. They envisioned a white-collar future for me, presenting a significant challenge. After completing my secondary education, financial constraints within my family prevented me from pursuing further studies.

Determined to follow my heart’s desire, I began teaching myself the art of sculpting. Armed solely with homemade tools, I navigated the learning process through hands-on experience. Despite the challenges posed by the absence of proper tools, the ones I had assembled were not considered typical for working in this field.

In the midst of these obstacles, I remained resolute in my pursuit of artistic expression. Alongside my self-taught journey, I took on the role of an educator, passing on my knowledge by teaching my brother the craft of sculpting. The starting point for this transformative journey was my home village, surrounded by stones I personally gathered. This foundation became the cornerstone of my sculpting endeavors, marking the chronological progression of my artistic evolution.

How long have you been sculpting?

PK: I have been sculpting for 24 years and teaching people from the diaspora for over five years. I have exhibited my work in galleries across the United States and Europe.

What inspires your artwork?

PK: With an impressive 24 years dedicated to the art of Shona sculpture, I draw inspiration from eminent founding sculptors like Bernard Matemera, Tapiwa Gorerino, and Brighton Sango. Nature has always been my muse, with a keen appreciation for the ever-changing shapes and movements of clouds, tree shadows, water bodies, rivers, and stars. My unique connection to the surroundings of my rural home village, surrounded by stones, forms the foundation of my artistic expression.

What is it like to create art live in front of an audience?

PK: Creating art live in front of an audience provides me with a platform to share a part of my rich heritage. I relish the opportunity to teach and unveil the intricate details of my craft, fostering a deeper appreciation for Shona sculpture.

This is my first time traveling with ZimSculpt. I have previously exhibited at exhibitions through curated compilations for sale, and I eagerly look forward to contributing to the exhibition in a more substantial way this year.

What would you like visitors to the exhibit to know about Zimbabwean art or your art specifically?

PK: As a Zimbabwean artist, my passion lies in storytelling through the unique sculptures I create. Each stone serves as a canvas for one-of-a-kind narratives deeply rooted in our rich cultural heritage. Visitors attending the exhibition will have the opportunity to explore the intricate tapestry of Zimbabwean artistry, gaining a profound understanding of the visual intelligence and high artistic skill sets involved in every creation.

I aspire to provide insight into the incredible talent of Zimbabwean artists, showcasing the exclusive use of hand tools in the sculpting process. Through this exhibition, I hope to offer a captivating glimpse into the depth and uniqueness of our artistic expressions, inviting viewers to appreciate the stories and skills woven into every sculpture.


Q&A with Passmore Mupindiko, sculptor

How did you learn to create stone sculptures? 

PM: I acquired the skill of stone sculpting from my grandfather, who was a seasoned artist in his own right. The artistic legacy passed down from generation to generation has shaped my journey, providing me with a profound foundation in the world of sculpture.

How long have you been sculpting? 

PM: 25 years.

What inspires your artwork?

PM: My artistic inspiration emanates from the everyday authentic life of Zimbabweans and the awe-inspiring beauty of nature. The subjects of my stone creations range from leaf-bowls designed to attract birds, slender Guinea fowl, and intricately crafted hummingbirds. My work has been exhibited globally, spanning countries such as France, Holland, South Africa, Germany, Denmark, Canada, the UK, and the U.S.

What is it like to create art live in front of an audience?

PM: Crafting art live in the presence of an audience is a profoundly humbling experience that fills me with a deep sense of honor. It is a unique privilege to unveil the intricacies of my sculpting process, offering spectators a firsthand glimpse into the meticulous techniques passed down to me by my grandfather. The live demonstration becomes a living narrative, echoing the rich heritage that has shaped my artistic journey.

What has been the most memorable moment from touring with the exhibit?

PM: Having toured with ZimSculpt for over a decade, each exhibition holds its unique moments. However, a particularly memorable experience occurred last year in Fort Worth, where we had the opportunity to encounter longhorn cows. As an admirer of these creatures, it was a special and unforgettable moment.  

What would you like visitors to the exhibit to know about Zimbabwean art or your art specifically?

PM: I would like exhibition visitors to appreciate the rich diversity inherent in Zimbabwean art. Sculpting, like any other art form, involves various stages, styles, and textures. Each artist contributes their unique touch, making every piece distinct. I invite all visitors to explore this diversity, confident that they will discover a stone sculpture perfectly suited for their garden, office, home, or as a thoughtful gift. The exhibition serves as a showcase of not just individual artistry from over 300 artists, but also the collective beauty of Zimbabwean artistic expressions.

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