Henry Munyaradzi – An integral part of the Shona Sculpture Movement April 20, 2016 – Posted in: Unique Collections – Tags: , , , ,

This article looks into the creator of one our finest sculptures, Henry Munyaradzi, or simply ‘Henry’ to those who love and adore Zimbabwean art. A lover of rock sculptures and the mineral serpentine, Henry was a thought leader and cultural evangelist of the Shona Sculpture Movement. Henry was the son of a Mhondoro, one of the traditional spiritual leaders of his community in Chipuriro, within the Sipolilo Tribal Trust land.

He participated as a child in the traditional ceremonies such as the bira, a type of funeral procession, and in traditional hunting. Henry never attended school as a Shona speaker and struggled with learning English throughout his life. Henry was mainly raised by his uncle (a local carpenter) and as such his education was practical and first-hand. He was influenced by a local itinerant Christian preacher, Mukaera, whose Apostolic Church he joined and he learned to read the Bible in Shona. Eventually he became village blacksmith, and also worked as a carpenter and tobacco grader.

Zimbabwe – A History in Stone

Central Zimbabwe contains the “Great Dyke” – a source of serpentine rocks. An early pre-colonial culture of Shona peoples settled the high plateau around 900 AD and “Great Zimbabwe”, which dates from about 1250–1450 AD, was a stone-walled town showing evidence in its archaeology of skilled stone working. The walls were made of a local granite and no mortar was used in their construction. The new Rhodes National Gallery was to be built in Harare and opened in 1957. The Gallery had been intended to bring non-African art to Harare but the local community of artists re-discovered latent talents for stone sculpture and a “first generation” of new Shona sculptors was born.

This budding art movement was relatively slow to develop but was given massive impetus in 1966 by Tom Blomefield, a white South-African-born farmer of tobacco whose farm at Tengenenge near Guruve had extensive deposits of serpentine stone suitable for carving. A sculptor in stone himself, he wanted to diversify the use of his land and welcomed new sculptors onto it to form a community of working artists. This was in part because at that time there were international sanctions against Rhodesia’s white government led by Ian Smith, who had declared Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, and tobacco was no longer able to generate sufficient income. Appropriately, Tengenenge means “The Beginning of the Beginning” – in this case of a significant new enterprise that has lasted through to the present day.

The Genius of Henry

Munyaradzi had married and was seeking employment when on 10 September 1967 he was introduced to the Tengenenge Sculpture Community by Blomefield, who according to his profile of Henry suggested he work alone rather than be influenced by the other sculptors. Given his knowledge of woodwork and metal forging, he quickly learned the skills of a sculptor in stone, remaining largely self-taught for his entire career.

His early work “The Insect God” was purchased by Henry McFadden and later exhibited in the Musée Rodin for many years. Henry left the Community to work on his own in 1975. He also taught other sculptors, for example his cousin Edward Chiwawa. Munyaradzi first exhibited his work at the Rhodes National Gallery in 1968. At that time, the work had to be transported the 150 km to Salisbury, where it was appraised by Jenny Senior, the Exhibitions Officer for the sales gallery and who also helped organise the annual art exhibitions. According to Blomefield, when Henry was asked how he made such perfect shapes in his sculpture, he replied “I follow the shape of the stone. If the stone is standing there, I can see the different points which are important and I make it out of my instinct; there’s a harmonious relationship between myself and the stone”.

Henry soon gained worldwide recognition, with eight one-man shows at venues such as Los Angeles, Berlin and Heidelberg. Following one of these, a 1984 exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in London, he purchased a farm in Ruwa, Zimbabwe where he lived and worked until his death.

One of Henry’s works, called Wing Woman, was depicted on a Zimbabwean stamp issued to commemorate Commonwealth Day on 14 March 1983. It formed the 9c value in a set completed with works by Joseph Ndandarika, John Takawira and Nicholas Mukomberanwa. The stamp carries the name “Henry Mudzengerere”! Another, called Spirit Python was the 30c value in a set issued on 14 April 1988 to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the opening of the National Gallery.

Munyaradzi derived his subject matter from the natural world, combining it with Christian imagery and depicting it in an unusual, deeply personal fashion. Celia Winter-Irving, in her book on Stone Sculpture (see Further Reading) wrote “Like Paul Klee, Henry takes a line for a walk but he reins it in after the first steps”. The evolution of his style and its connection to European sculpture is discussed by Jonathan Zilberg.

Sculpture of abstract man

Our particular item, “Sculpture of abstract man” was fashioned out of Serpentine and is roughly 36cm tall and 24cm wide. It is one of the last pieces of publicly available pieces from his lifetime of work available in South Africa. Reach out to us to inquire more about this beautiful piece of history!