Our First Child by Washington Musonza

In An English Country Garden

11th May 2012

Jill Glenn enjoys an art trail in the prettiest of surroundings, and decodes a mystery in stone in the company of Zimbabwean sculptor Tawanda Sarireni…

Borde Hill Garden, near Haywards Heath in West Sussex, has been described by Country Life as ‘one of the country’s truly great gardens’. Roughly an hour and a half away from the heart of the Optima area it’s within easy striking distance for a day trip. Worth a visit at any time, it’s exceptionally good value at the moment, for the usual £8 entry fee not only gives you access to the usual suite of ‘garden rooms’ with their immaculate planting and their unparalleled views, but currently also allows you to see ‘Mystery in Stone’: 35 beautiful Zimbabwean sculptures, in residence at Borde Hill until 9 September.

‘Mystery in Stone’ is the name of both the travelling exhibition and the group that creates the work: a collective of some 15 Shona artists, established in Zimbabwe in 1995 to honour their history and culture, and to further their traditions, beliefs and lifestyle. They are predominantly male, as the cultural heritage has long dictated a gender divide around art and sculpture, but more women have been coming through and bringing their own particular insights into Shona life. The group’s website describes its members as ‘creative geniuses of extraordinary skill’ who ‘have mastered the magic of interweaving colour, form, texture, essence, belief, and emotion with stone’. It’s a big claim, but, on the evidence here, not an unfounded one. Nestled amongst the greenery or commanding open vistas are beautiful statues in springstone or cobalt or opal, that reflect and reveal four basic themes: family, joy, sorrow and rites of passage.

Tawanda Sarireni, the curator, who travels the world with ‘Mystery in Stone’ (a parallel exhibition is just coming to end at a venue near La Rochelle, in France) has plenty of stories to tell about the individual pieces and the techniques and philosophies behind them.

Each sculpture is hand-carved using traditional methods, with no pre-drawing, by artists who have “the eye to see what’s in the stone”, he explains. The single concession to modernity is the chisel, which may be tungsten-tipped or diamond-cut; definitely no power tools. Each piece is made out of one single piece of rock. It is about finding what’s in there, seeing what the stone wants to be, revealing the hidden inner. “You have to communicate with the stone,” Tawanda says. “You can’t make it what it is not Or rather, you can, but you will always know that it wanted to be something else.” It’s an approach that starts, literally, from the ground up. “If you want to make a rabbit, you have to find a piece of stone that wants to be a rabbit.”

Standards are high, and the group’s watchword is integrity. The harder and more challenging the stone, the better the work that can come out of it. “You must make sure that in a hundred years people don’t say ‘this artist was lazy’”, is Tawanda’s take.

The sculptures sit surprisingly well in this most English of environments. They come from the earth, Tawanda and I agree, and therefore work in any exterior setting. “So long as there is nature…” he says. In Borde Hill’s Italian Garden we come upon one of his own pieces, Love Birds. “It’s a tribute to all lovers,” he says, before decoding it for me: the way he has polished one bird and left the other rough, to suggest that people should appreciate their differences, that love should cut through barriers. He talks about how one bird shelters the other, how a relationship should enable the individuals to resist outside pressure. He hints often, in talking of his own work and that of his fellows, at the political difficulties that the Zimbabwean people have experienced over recent years. The Musician, with its alternative title I Will Not Speak, for example, expresses the idea of the powerfulness of words; the tense body and the open mouth indicate a character that cannot be silenced. “I will sing it,” Tawanda ventures that the sculptor is saying, “even if I cannot speak it.”

The theme of unrest, and the displacement of large groups of people, surfaces again in Our First Child, aka Travelling Family; while the casual observer picks up immediately how the cradling signifies parental protectiveness, there’s another, more moving, analysis, according to Tawanda… Whatever happens to them, they have the comfort of their child: “their biggest treasure”.

While the collective is not specifically political – it is an artistic network above all else – it is committed to the direct support of Zimbabwean artists, their families and community, and to the education and care of the family members of ‘Mystery In Stone’ artists lost to AIDS. All work here, both the large ‘garden pieces’ and a selection of smaller pieces housed in a small glasshouse, is for sale.

Tawanda regrets the administration and the travelling that keep him from regular creative work of his own, but he clearly relishes the opportunity to reveal ‘Mystery in Stone’ to fresh audiences. He’s regularly on site, and available to walk round with visitors; check with the Borde Hill staff in advance or on arrival to avail yourself of this. It’s a real privilege to tour any exhibition with someone who knows the works so intimately and can talk with such insight and tenderness about each piece and its creator, and the cultural wellspring from which they emerge…


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