J.E. has a South African semi-abstract sculpture, 20 inches by 12 inches by 5 inches, of a female with flowing tresses. The stone it's made of is steatite, or, as artists from Zimbabwe say, rapoko stone. Found on every continent except Antarctica, soapstone, as we call it in the U.S., is one of the most widely crafted minerals of the world. J.E.'s stone may be as old as 10 million years. Being so durable, yet carvable, allowed ancient peoples worldwide to make vessels and works of art. Pieces are found in Inuit igloos, Egyptian tombs, palaces of China, and temples of India. Perhaps the most consistent art of steatite is carved by the Shona artists of Zimbabwe, the origin of J.E.'s piece.
The story of Shona sculpture is fraught with political overtones and struggle, and has emerged as a challenging medium on which to place a value. In a 15th century temple near Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, such carvings made of steatite have been found, attesting to the age and nobility of African sculpture. However, J.E.'s piece's style dates to the 1960s. The story of this style owes its origin in part to colonization.
In the 1960s, the National Gallery of Art in Rhodesia gave "themes" to indigenous artists who had for hundreds of years worked in stone found in Zimbabwe's Great Dyke area. The aim was to establish a working colony of artists and to house them around particular quarries, providing work, and through certain assessable styles, the gain of a market abroad. Apprentices were given tools and direction around such places as the Nyanga Mountain, the highest peak in Zimbabwe, which, for generations, was honored as sacred, perhaps, in part, because of its rare stone quarry of serpentine. Many of their teachers were artists from outside this long cultural tradition at first, but by the 1980s, teachers were decidedly Shona elders, with a definite voice. The style of J.E.'s piece is called Shona, which evolved through the 1960s, '70s and '80s, emerging as a political voice.
Although the major collectors of Shona sculpture are European, much of this sculpture graces public gardens in a famous garden called Chapungu Sculpture Park in Harare, Zimbabwe, as well as the South Africa Nelson Mandela Foundation, and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. Other locations include the Millesgarden Museum of Sweden, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the U.K., the Belgian Gardens, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and The Hague. In the U.S., sites include the privately owned Handelsman Gallery in Woodstock, Ill. Some Shona pieces are very large, and, in fact, the Morris B. Squire Foundation here in Santa Barbara has a large-scale work by Zimbabwe artist Dominic Benhura (1968- ).
The aim of Shona sculpture is both humanitarian and political, belying its limiting colonial origins. One such sculpture from the 1990s in the Chapungu Sculpture Park in Harare is called "Our HIV Friend," controversial and emotional in its time.
The message of Shona sculpture is to free the spirit of the stone to enlighten the viewer with a particularly direct message. In the photo of J.E.'s sculpture, you see the swirling hair of the spirit of the female, as if a whirlwind caught the feminine anima.
One of the foremost dealers of Shona sculpture is Peggy Knowlton of Princeton N.J., who sells work from her sculpture garden in shows such as "Carved Wisdom, Social Issues, and Poverty: The Homeless," illustrating the Shona artists' commitment to world issues.
Shona art has a limited market at auction, perhaps because the genre is too new, controversial and topical to be a moneymaker on the secondary market. But the retail market for the work is flourishing, even at the cost of importing such heavy pieces. The Larsen Gallery in Scottsdale is an example.
J.E.'s sculpture is both rough-cut and textured; the shiny surface has been burnished to show off the richness of the stone. Shona sculpture is found in steatite, serpentine, verdite, sandstone and granite. Recently, a traveling show from Zimbabwe's Chapungu Sculpture Park toured the U.S.: "Chapungu: Custom and Legend: A Culture in Stone." Older artifacts in stone carved in Africa from the 15th to the 19th centuries were moved in the early 20th century from archaeological sites in villages to museums in Cape Town.
Often, this sculpture is unsigned, emphasizing the political statement over the artist. The Shona style is a unique blend of ancient traditions and an African political voice emerging from colonial influences. The value of J.E.'s sculpture is $600.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter