ORANGE, NJ — ValleyArts announces the opening of "Faces from Zimbabwe: A collection of recent Shona sculpture." This exhibit highlights the work of eight sculptors from Zimbabwe; they are young members of the Shona people working in their native stone in a unique aethestic that blends African tradition with European modernism. Shona sculpture is world-renowned, yet is not often seen in the United States due to the difficulty of transporting such heavy objects.

The exhibit opens on Friday, Feb. 7 at ValleyArts, 400 S Jefferson Street, and runs through the end of Black History Month. Valley Arts is a gallery and community art space in the historic Valley Arts District straddling Orange and West Orange. Maplewood resident Paul Williams is chairman of the Valley Arts board. 

ValleyArts board member Andrew Howell is a financial analyst covering emerging markets, so he has frequently traveled to Africa. On a visit to Zimbabwe several years ago he become interested in Shona sculpture and met some of the artists — and has sought to promote this work in the United States. 

Sign Up for East Orange/Orange Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

He explained how the exhibit came to be. “Several years ago I went to Zimbabwe for a work trip, my first visit to the country. As I rode in from the airport to my hotel in Harare, I noticed what looked like a collection of boulders by the side of the road, which as I got closer I realized were not boulders but carved stone statues. In my previous travels in Africa, stone artwork, assembled informally by the side of the road, was not something I had seen before. I was intrigued.

“Over the next couple of days, I noticed a few more of these makeshift roadside sculpture gardens around town and I finally got to visit one, where I saw the work up close and met some of the artists. As I learned, these pieces had been crafted out of serpentine, a metamorphic rock quarried locally. The artists, members of the Shona tribe, had developed a style blending traditional African elements, particularly faces and forms, with European modernism along the lines of Henry Moore — often exploring the unique physical characteristics of the stone itself. No mechanical tools are used in the sculpting process, which often involves polishing parts of the stone to a reflective sheen," Howell said.

“I was so taken by this artwork that I sought to bring some to the USA, with the dual purpose of providing a new market for the artists and making these amazing works available to people I knew." Howell is a resident of Maplewood, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Background on Shona art 

This exhibit showcases 10 works by eight Harare-based artists, all of who work as part of a collective of artists at the Chapungu Sculpture Park, founded in 1970. Many of them are descendants of some of the original sculptors who developed the modern Shona style decades ago. 

The Shona and their ancestors have lived for centuries in Southeastern Africa, primarily in the land comprising modern Zimbabwe, which means "House of Stone."

The Shona people have expressed themselves through their unique sculpture and masonry for centuries, but their art form took a new direction in the 1950s with the development of a modern sculpture school under the Rhodes National Gallery in Salisbury (now Harare).

While rooted in ancient tradition, contemporary Shona sculpture of Zimbabwe is a sophisticated art form that plays with form, texture, perspective and color, all the while expressing human connections that transcend geography and time.  Sculpting with simple tools, Shona sculptors carve the stone of region, including serpentine, soapstone, springstone, firm grey limestone, and semi-precious verdite and lepidolite.

Shona artists rarely pre-draw their sculptures; instead, the sculpture is inspired by the stone itself. The Shona believe that everything has a spirit, including plants, animals and rocks. Sculptors often say that the spirits come to them in their dreams and reveal the spirit that dwells in the rock.