Sculpture in hard stone is all forms of art in reverse, in as much as it is subtractive, rather than additive (paint added to canvas, clay added to an armature). Michelangelo once said, “The angel is already in the stone. It is the job of the artist to remove just enough material to release her.”
The Shona Fine Artists use mostly basic hand tools – simple, hand-made chisels, hammers, rasps and sandpaper – to craft their pieces. Electrical tools are used infrequently because not only is the electrical supply unreliable, but also electric tools that carve by impact are un-useable as the strength of the impact cannot be controlled . . . causing inevitable fracturing. The stone, more so than with almost every other sculpture movement, dictates what can and can’t be created. Every work is an exploration into the stone, hard physical labour with surprises, frustrations, disappointments, and revelations. Sometimes the stone rebels. Impurities, an accidental blow, internal fissures, incredibly hard seam . . . the stone imposes its will over the artist. Every day in the workshop is an adventure in the art of subtraction
The Great Dyke, which is a 2.5-billion-year-old horse-shoe ridge of 500km stretching through the North and East round to the centre of the country, is rich in minerals of every description. This is where Zimbabwean sculptors source their raw materials. The stones they use most frequently belong to the geological family Serpentine which is a sedimentary rock, originally deposited on a sandy seafloor. Serpentines are rich in iron, so when the stone weathers it turns a rusty colour.
The stone used by Zimbabwean sculptors is unique in the world, in the range of colours that can be found in veins of rock that are literally next to one another in the earth: shades of avocado, pomegranate, granadilla, lemon, peach, plum, grape and mulberry.
Some of the stones used:
Verdite: An extremely hard, beautiful stone, mica and chrome based, Verdite comes from only one mine in all of Africa. It comes in several different colours, deep green is the most popular, and now the most sought after, but also golden, brown, yellow and variegated. It accompanies corundum, one of the hardest substances known to man, which runs through the stone, making the act of carving verdite one of the most difficult challenges for a sculptor.
Butter Jade: Also known in Zimbabwe as Butter Chete, Butter Jade is one of the hardest stones that the Shona Sculptors carve. Jacob Chikumbirike, a sculptor, spent two years searching Zimbabwe and finally found a deposit of the stone about a mile from Birchenough Bridge in Manicaland on the border with Mozambique, light yellow with distinctive parallel lines of dark striations and passages of dark green and grey running through it which is Unakite, a petrified vegetable material. The stone pulsates with subtle patterns that enhance the surfaces of the completed works.
Kwekwe Fruit Serpentine: Coming from only two farms in Kwekwe, a town a few hours Southwest of Harare, Fruit Serpentine, or Kwekwe Stone, occurs as boulders, which the artists use long steel poles to pry from the ground, as opposed to mining. It is a beautiful, multicoloured stone, very dark, almost black in places, with areas of dark brown, red and even a deep blue at times. The distinctive metallic orange patches are actually impregnations of copper.
Leopard Stone This striking stone comes from the Nyanga district in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. This is the hardest stone the Fine Artists carve. It was only discovered about 5 years ago as a carving material. Its yellow colour is interspersed with spots of dark green and black, hence the name, Leopard Stone. There are only a handful of artists that carve this stone successfully, due to the difficulties caused by the hardness of the stone and the calcite veins running through the it.
Dolomite: A bright white stone that sparkles and glows because of the chrystaline facets of its surface. Mined in Domboshawa, this extremely hard stone is perfect for outdoor placement.
Cobalt Stone: A very challenging stone that only comes from two small quarries about two hours Northeast of Harare. The predominant colour of Cobalt Stone is a deep plum red, often having passages of beige, brown, yellow and pale green, that enliven the surface
Spring Stone: A very dense black stone that occurs in several sites, especially the Great Dyke range that bisects Zimbabwe east to west. It often has slightly softer ochre areas and striations that give visual variation to the deep grays and blacks of the hardstone. It is especially favoured for large works, as it can be quarried in solid pieces weighing several tons.
Lepidolite: The stone ranges from pale mauve to deep purple, found in two small quarries in the Nyanja District of the eastern highlands. The very hard mineral is said to have a very high content of Lithium, used for batteries and medicine. In a few years the current supply could be exhausted.