11 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Art Defines People

Collections, especially art collections play a vital role in a nation's wealth and the securing of its heritage. The majority of all artworks housed in art museums or national institutes are donated by or facilitated with the help of the funds from private and/or corporate entities.

It is ironic that the treasures that we all enjoy in national public collections are often made possible by private monies or plunder as is the case of many Western galleries that collected during imperialism.

Most countries all over the world house collections and these collections have come to define the values, tastes, histories and skills of the holding nation.

For example, the Tate in the United Kingdom, owns the world's largest collection of Joseph Mallord William Turner's work. It is home to the Turners Bequest, comprising 300 oil paintings and many thousands of sketches and watercolours (including 300 sketchbooks).

The Bequest, including all works left behind in Turner's studio at his death in 1851, forms the vast majority of the Turner collection at the Tate. The paintings showcase the breadth of Turner's output in oils and contain many celebrated works.

They range from his early experiments in the medium such as Moonlight, a study at Millbank exhibited 1797, through to large-scale exhibition pieces including Rome, from the Vatican, and later, more impressionistic works such as Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited in 1842.

Examples closer to home is that of the Timbuktu ancient manuscripts in Mali located in West Africa and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe's various Collections. During the 15th and 16th century Timbuktu was considered a very important Islamic city in Africa. It was responsible for spreading Islam in Africa and Muslims gathered there for important festivals from time to time.

As far back as the 12th century, Timbuktu became a celebrated centre of Islamic learning and a commercial establishment. Timbuktu had three universities and 180 Quranic schools at this time.

These universities were the Sankore University, Jingaray Ber University and Sidi Yahya University represented the golden age of Africa.

Books were not only written in Timbuktu, but they were also imported and copied there. Where there was an advanced local book copying industry in the city, the universities and private libraries contained unparalleled scholarly works.

The famous scholar of Timbuktu, Ahmad Baba, who was among those forcibly exiled in Morocco by the recent uprising of extremist Islamists claimed that his library of 1 600 books had been plundered, and that his library, according to him, was one of the smaller ones in the city.

The recent upheavals in Mali have set global alarm bells ringing with concern about safety of these early Islamic contributions to the cultural heritage of mankind.

The National Gallery of Zimbabwe's collections endeavour to represent significant developments in Zimbabwean art. The works in the collection are of outstanding quality and importance defined by merit and the artist's contribution to the history and development of Zimbabwean and international art. The selection process is therefore based on quality, significance of the artist and their contribution to the development of Zimbabwean art, as well as cultural significance of the artwork/artefact(s).

The National Gallery of Zimbabwe's Permanent Collection is made up of about 6 000 works that can be categorised as traditional African pieces (axes, baskets, blankets, drums, headrests, knives, jewellery, mats, musical instruments pots, spears, stools walking sticks etc.), traditional international pieces ceramics, furniture, glass paintings, masks, etc), European Old Master works (paintings and sculpture) African and Zimbabwean modern artworks.

The collection has been amassed over the years of the gallery's existence through purchases, bequests and donations. Significant donations were made by Sir Stephen Courtauld and Col R. H. Whitwell who donated most of the European Old Master collection.

Majority of the African artworks were purchased by the gallery's first director, Frank McEwen, when he travelled on several occasions to the West and Central African region while preparing for the first International Congress of African Art held in 1962. McEwen also travelled to Europe and other parts of the world on buying missions. The other works have been purchased or donated to the gallery during annual art exhibitions since 1957.

The collection demonstrates and contains the very best art making traditions in Europe and Africa and within it there are some insightful, delightful and rare pieces that are not only aesthetically beautiful but significant within the history of African art in general and Zimbabwean art in particular.

Another example of art collections in Zimbabwe is the nation defining Zimbabwe Birds which were looted from Zimbabwe over 100 years ago and were later returned in 2003. When the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were excavated by treasure-hunters in the late 19th century, eight carvings of soapstone birds were unearthed.

The hunter, Willie Posselt, took the first bird from Great Zimbabwe in 1889. He found four birds on the hill in the Eastern Enclosure (now also known as the Sacred Enclosure), placed in what he described as "an old ruined wall". Despite the protests of local Shona living in the area, he cut one of them from its column and stored the rest "in a secure place".

This bird he later sold to Cecil Rhodes and it has remained as part of the estate of Rhodes in Cape Town, South Africa at his Groote Schuur home in Cape Town and, somewhat controversially, still remains there. This is the only bird not currently in Zimbabwe. Four complete birds and a partial bird were sent to Rhodes separately and kept in South Africa but these were returned to Zimbabwe in 1981 after independence.

Pieces of a sixth bird ended up in the hands of a German missionary who sold it to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1907. The fragments were taken from Berlin to Leningrad when Russian forces occupied Germany at the end of the Second World War.

They remained there until the end of the Cold War when they were returned to Germany. In May 2003 the fragments of soapstone sculpture were handed back to President Mugabe by a German museum. The eighth statue has always remained in Zimbabwe.

The collection of the Zimbabwe Birds are an important symbol of the country and have come to define a nation.

In modern times the modern stone sculpture movement has come to represent the ethnography and creative potential of the Zimbabwe national state. Many people from all over the world reads Zimbabwe through interaction with Zimbabwe stone art and the early works embody so much that will speak loudly to future generations.

Chapungu Sculpture Park collected hoards of the early works. This was due to the diligence and dedication to this craft by owner Roy Guthrie. Guthrie was able to acquire the thousands of pieces produced in different parts of the country to build up a premier collection that represented not only the early works but the pinnacle of representation achieved by the most significant artists that worked in this medium.

Chapungu is currently under liquidation with the entire collection going on sale and we as a country risk losing works and history to foreign collectors. For example works by some of Zimbabwe's finest stone sculptures that are recognised not only in Zimbabwe but on an international level.

Chapungu was the home to renowned first generation artists such as Joseph Ndandarika and Nicholas Mukomberanwa, works by Bernard Matembera, Boira Mteki, Arthur Fata and many more.

We are all aware of the economic difficulties that currently abound the country. Yet failure to intervene in the possible loss of these works will be tantamount to the Turner Collection being thrown into the bin.

Chapungu remains of vital importance nationally and internationally to any important collection anywhere in the world. Who really wants to be a part of its demise?

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