25 February 2013

Zimbabwe: 'Bring Back Chapungu's Roy Guthrie'

THROUGHOUT the 1980s, Chapungu Village and Sculpture Park was a dynamic hub of the world famous Zimbabwean stone sculpture. There one was likely to meet the crème de la crème of the movement that emerged in the 1950s under the tutelage of Frank McEwen, the founding director of the National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe, where he established the Workshop School that is synonymous with great sculptors such as Mukomberanwa, Muteki, Mukarombwa, Takawira, Ndandarika and Mubayi, to name but a few.

McEwen had to leave Rhodesia in a hurry because he was seen as coddling the black artists who were producing grotesque art works in the establishments eyes but, in fact, his hard work and singlemindedness had produced a world phenomenal art form. To fill the gap, a number of commercial galleries opened in competition with National Gallery in the now lucrative trade and the most prominent was Gallery Shona which was run by one Roy Guthrie.

Guthrie was a shrewd businessman who initially was into refrigeration manufacture. Around 1980, he purchased a vast tract of land in Msasa, part of which was Doon Estate where he established Chapungu Village and Sculpture Park with a typical village flavour to it. He expanded quickly, nurturing new talent that became the pillars of his business together with the old masters.

Roy Guthrie Zimbabwean Sculpture: A call for revitalisation

Zimbabwean stone sculpture has been a topical subject since its early days in the late fifties when Frank McEwen brought together a rag-tag group of young men with a view to forge them into modernist movement that would use the vast spiritual lore of Zimbabwe which he intended to package as Shona sculpture and unleash it on the unsuspecting world. To this end, he resoundingly succeeded.

McEwen had a well-formed vision of what he wanted, he insisted on the individuality of the artist despite the shared spirituality. Besides, he was well connected in the Paris and London art world including the cubists and surrealist artists like Picasso, Leger, Braque and Dali. He networked his way into the Museo Rodin, the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art and prominent collections, strategically placing his artists onto the world stage. Shona sculpture was so new yet so ancient that it took the world by storm, inducing David Shepherd to write: "Of the best sculptors in the world, 10 come from the Shona tribe . . ."

McEwen was a jealous guard of his vision, which brought him into inevitable conflict with Tom Bloemfield who had set up a larger sculptor colony at Tengenenge.

Tom, too, encouraged individuality but he respected the vision of the artist without question, which was the opposite of McEwen's controlled and indeed, controlling vision. The tensions endured to the day McEwen was subsequently deported from the then Rhodesia for daring to empower blacks.

The other player was former businessperson turned dealer Roy Guthrie, who saw the potential of the art form and became a consummate and passionate patron.

He formed Gallery Shona in the mid-seventies and later turned it into Chapungu Sculpture Park. He had an easygoing relationship with the artists, kept them just solvent in the difficult years of Rhodesia and took them to greater success in the 1980s. Under his guidance and support, a completely new crop of artists reshaped the Shona concept slowly discarding the mythology in favour of secular subject matter.

Matombo Gallery opened under Roy Cook and Bernard Takawira and a small number of itinerant dealers from Europe joined the fray thus putting pressure on the artists to produce more. The benefits to artists were a factor; they had a constant income and some of them bought substantial properties in the suburbs of Harare and Ruwa area. In these areas and high-density suburbs, they set up studios, which welcomed young talent as assistants and apprentices. The pressure to produce reduced one-on-one mentorship in favour of high production and even larger pieces. This, perhaps was the beginning of the end for sculpture in Zimbabwe.

Greed set in among gallerists, dealers and artists alike. The dealers and collectors had a larger number of artists to choose from at highly negotiable prices in sometimes mean and acrimonious dealings. The increase in foreign dealers was firmly embraced by the artists who firmly grasped the ensuing bonanza. Sadly, the personal touch that had been the hallmark of the Movement deteriorated into parody of itself. Just about any master was imitated if not outright copied with impunity thus devaluing the quality of work. The prominent artists became role models so much that every boy and girls too, wanted to become artists; not for the art but the glamour.

The financial woes and misdemeanour's of the 80s and 90s set in, further damaging the practice and the economy in general. The same woes touched the dealers, too, sending Guthrie into involuntary exile. Tom Bloemfield continued taking vast exhibitions to Europe, especially to Holland where numerous small galleries have sprouted where one can buy a sizeable stone for less than a hundred euros. Bloemfield has since retired and left Dominic Benhura as the new head at Tengenenge.

Somewhere, Bloemfield and Guthrie left a vacuum that begs a reality check if the fortunes of stone sculptures are to be turned around in Zimbabwe.

The hapless artists watch helplessly as the standards of living deteriorate amid slumping prices. Scores of container shipments leave the country every year, glutting the world with stone art that has counter-evolved to become de facto curio except for the few dedicated artists. This has resulted into mass production lacking any semblance of quality check and relying on the basic forms that were invented by a select few masters of the past. Due to these practices, Zimbabwean stone sculpture has inevitably lost its vitality and it is a life-and-death matter with most sculptor-carvers.

It may be argued that Bloemfield and Guthrie contributed to the sorry state of affairs but their contribution and dogged dedication took the art-form to dizzy heights.

The two men simply had business acumen and applied strategic thinking to achieve great things for the art and artists. Instead of lamenting the past and glorifying an art form that is in stasis, a major re-examination of the art practice is overdue.

Young talent has to be gently groomed with emphasis on the individual thus re-inventing critical thinking and quality control. Well-groomed artistes will inevitably create and regenerate the art. Through rigorous quality control and effective networking, artists will enjoy better financial security and enjoy better and widespread recognition and international ranking.

In these days of concerted black economic empowerment, the argument that a man like Roy Guthrie is perhaps the right candidate to restore the fortunes of Zimbabwean stone sculpture may sound retrogressive but there are real factors to consider.

Firstly, it is without doubt that the ebbing fortunes of stone sculpture coincided with his departure because artists had nowhere to dispose of their wares and therefore the pricing and ranking system disintegrated rapidly into a free for all. Few people were venturing outside Zimbabwe to present the finest works of art in formal galleries; instead, artists were invited abroad to do workshops in remote villages around Europe and, undoubtedly, they were at the mercy of their hosts. The sorry situation persists.

Perhaps, Zimbabwe should invite Guthrie to return within clearly laid out bounds and checks because he simply made a difference. With him will return a vast collection of artworks that went with him; Zimbabwe cannot afford to lose the most comprehensive collection of its best sculpture.

Taruona, his wife, is one of the most recognised woman mbira players; she is indeed a living national heritage and illustrious daughter of Zimbabwe in the ilk of Stella Chiweshe and Chi Maraire so the question begs: Can a mbira diva create effectively in exile?

Hardly, nothing much has been heard from her since as far as her music is concerned. The nation cannot afford to take these losses lightly; it is a bit like Italy without Pavarotti and the Renaissance art works.

Guthrie's offshore experience has exposed to a large international network of collectors and galleries which Zimbabwe cannot afford to ignore at the expense of artists. The discomforts of exile surely have weighed heavily on him that if he were to come back he will know the bounds. His business savvy and passion for the art is immense that in a climate of forgiveness and reconciliation, it should outweigh his misconduct from the dark days when regrettably anything went for one to stay afloat.

A recent survey among artists shows that they would welcome him back to restore Chapungu to its former glory because it was the most important cradle of Zimbabwean sculpture ever.

The argument presented here does not mean that compromises and excuses are being sought in the face of wrongdoing but the fact remains that he is a great champion of Zimbabwean sculpture along with Frank McEwen, Joram Mariga, Tom Bloemfield and others chronicled in Ben Joosten's voluminous writings.

Is it madness to think of forgiveness in the name of regeneration? Mea culpa, surely not. The past year has seen the return of Mushore, the CEO of NMB Bank.

Can the same hand of forgiveness be offered to Guthrie because his absence has been deeply felt among artists including the most successful sculptors. Everyone has felt the pinch in the sculpture community; no one has been spared. Now is the time to recognise the life work of a fellow Zimbabwean who contributed immensely to put local sculpture on the world map.

If need be, an indigenisation aspect can be applied so that local artists can learn entrepreneurial skills from the grandmaster of sculpture.

The powers-that-be should seriously consider inviting Roy Guthrie back because the country can only benefit from his well honed skills that catapulted the likes of Nicholas Mukomberanwa, the Takawira brothers, Henry, Matemera, Fata and Benhura to serious global fame.

It is a shot in the dark but may yet stem a rapidly all engulfing tragedy that has affected a large population of Zimbabwe socially and economically.

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