Dominic Benhura

Dominic Benhura. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"I really love stone – the sound which comes from it"

Dominic Benhura is among Zimbabwe’s most well known sculptors of what has been called “the second generation”, who seeks to be sculptors in the world rather than Shona sculptors. He has been given a number of awards abroad and in Zimbabwe, among them Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Gallery in Harare.

He was born in 1968 in the town of Mrehwa (Murewa) about a hundred kilometres east of Harare, where his father died before he was born. He was taken by his uncle to Harare for schooling and lived in the Tafara township. At the Gutsa home his cousin Tapfuma Gutsa and a few other artists who had been trained at the BAT workshop formed a working group, Utonga. Here Dominic started helping his cousin Tapfuma Gutsa with sculpting, and soon was encouraged to start sculpting on his own. At twelve he sold his first small sculpture.
Dominic Benhura is known for his experimenting and innovations of themes and form. At the beginning of his own career as a sculptor he was obsesses with animals and plants. When he became a resident sculptor at the Chapungu Sculpture Park in 1990 he started making larger works. He also got inspiration from attending workshops in Botswana, USA, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Germany. When he left Chapungu he established “Dominic’s studio” in his backyard in Athlone, where he supplies free material for less established sculptors to work.

Many of his later works are social commentaries, like the sculpture “Our HIV-friend”, cut in three-meter Spring Stone, and making a statement on openness on the epidemics and the need for support from family and friends.

Let me ask you first why you started to be an artist and how.
It started more as a hobby when I was watching my nephew who was a renowned sculptor by then; his name was Tapfuma Gutsa. So I used to help him polish his work, punch a few holes in his sculptures. That is how it all began. And after schoolwork I would just go back and help him, then I started working on smaller pieces from the small bits and pieces, which were coming from his bigger sculptures. And he liked them so much that he encouraged me to work bigger and bigger.

My boost was when the architects who were visiting his studio liked those pieces very much, I was about twelve years by then, and now I am 34, they liked it so much that they started buying those small pieces. And that encouraged me very much that I managed to pay for my school fees, for my education and everything. And then I went to work at Chapungu Sculpture Park as a resident artist. I was invited there. I worked there until 1994, and in between the late 1980s and 1995 I represented Chapungu in several workshops around the world, Asia, America and Europe as well.

Then in 1994 I started my own studio whereby we work with some young budding artists and some professional artists.

Have you ever contemplated or tried another genre then sculpture?
Yes, actually I trained with a college because those architects were buying my works; they thought I would be a very good architect. So they sent me there to learn drawing and painting so that maybe when I graduated they would take me for apprentice.

And I went there for a few months, but I didn't like it to be on the drawing board all the time. And I was just using pencils and drawing all the time; I didn't like it. I wanted to do the physical work, which I really enjoy in the stone carving, which I do nearly every day in my life.

But I know how to draw and paint and it helps me a lot, because I also do a lot of figures, it helps me to work my ideas then to the stones.

Well, from this story it sounds as if you had an easy road to the stars.
Not really. As an artist you have to try new things all the time because sometimes you have the same clients or art lovers or fans following you all the time, so I am into plants, I am into snakes, I am into figuratives because now I have my own children where I derive a lot of inspiration.

And at the same time I've also got a lot of encouragement from gallery owners and just the general public. And I've also won several awards locally, and also some awards overseas, say in Denmark in 1996 at an international workshop. And locally, recently, this year, 2002, I jointly won the award with Nicolas Mukomberanwa, a world renowned artist, for the Best Artist in Three-Dimension Visual Art. So it's really encouraging to me.

So is that one of the attractions of sculpture, the physical?
Yes, I really enjoy it, especially the stone, the sound that comes from it. For me it's like music, it's like rhythm, especially at night when you only hear the birds and only the sound of stones, because sometimes I work at night also. But I also do a little bit of wood, but not that much because I really love stone.

When you walk or drive around in Harare you see stone sculptures of different sizes and probably different qualities and shapes all over the place. There are all these little yards or parks with sculptures. Now how do you as an artist, who seem to have propelled from early on into high quality, relate to this art? Do you just go past it and say "Oh, God, that is crap"?
No, I wouldn't look at that like crap, you know. I think those people are trying to earn an honest living, given the situation even here in Zimbabwe or in Africa whereby there is not much industry generally. Some industries are actually going down, our economies are going down and these people, rather than robbing or doing whatever, they are into what maybe I would call them curio stuff, which are more like decorative stuff, which maybe collectors wouldn't buy, or are not museum quality. But certainly there is a market for it and I am happy that some people are really trying to earn an honest living, through that feeding their families. Especially now with a lot of drought, AIDS and everything, so when they raise money that way I really appreciate it.

And actually when people come to my studio, even collectors, I always encourage them to buy these sculptures, maybe as presents for their friends back home. So I take them to those art markets.

Can you tell some more about your studio? You say that they are working full-time, so who pays them?
No, actually it's really a free thing, you know. Actually, it was my idea of just giving back to the community because like myself, my history is like that. I am an orphan. When I was born my father died, I was still in my mother’s womb. It was a communal thing, my uncles, my neighbours helped bring me up. And luckily I managed to get the right career, which is more like my passion for my life. So the community really helped me, friends when they saw me in the papers when I was young they encouraged me, they enjoyed doing that.

I thought I should give back to the community in a small way, so I opened that place. I've got two places, about 4-acres altogether, so one side - one of the houses I use as my residence with my wife and then the other we use for the workshop. So the artists can use that to sleep and cook, and I will supply them with stones, maybe breakfast and lunch.

In 1994 we started, myself, then we were four, now we are more than twenty. It is just by word of mouth and people know that there are a lot of artists working there.

So when they sell their pieces I don't take any commission because it's not a gallery, it's just a community, an artist-run thing. So I supply everything and then they just work from there. But I am happy to say I encourage them to invest in houses and most of them are doing that, which is - that way I feel I have achieved something than monetary returns to myself because I am doing well with my own stuff.

How do they sell? Is it through visitors coming there?
Yes. We don't advertise or anything, it's just by word of mouth. So people just come. There is a lot of energy there, I enjoy it, and it helps me to share ideas. And the embassies also support us a lot, they bring visitors from their countries, they refer them to us because they know it's not a business for me. They know obviously the artists are benefiting directly.

As a widely travelled artist, have you seen sculpture abroad which well, either inspires you in your work, or that you just admire?
I think when I go abroad and see art my intention is just to admire and I don't read art books either because I don't want them to influence me. I want to remain myself. Although I really appreciate there are great artists, I have seen a lot when I go around. But I look at them just to enjoy them not to take some ideas from them, because in the end if I want to produce a book I don't want people to point at a piece "Like, this must be Rhodin or this must be--- no, I want them to say "This must be Dominic." They have to enjoy my personal work. Although I know some artists trying to - when they go overseas to study maybe they pick up ideas and try to fuse them. So I am very conscious of that, I always try and make sure I don't do that.

But can you really guarantee that your subconscious doesn't fool you and make you absorb things that maybe - yes?
You could be right, it's human nature, but so far, so good, I don't think it has happened. You know our market is generally not Zimbabwean; it is overseas. That is the thing. So once people see that then they have that already, then you kill your market. So here you might surprise people but when you go and exhibit overseas people might just look at it and just say "It's not it" and they won't enjoy it.

I think it's fascinating and a bit sad, you have in Zimbabwe this fantastic interest in and very high quality in stone sculpture, and you have quite a few people here in Zimbabwe who are doing that ...
Thousands.

And at the same time very little of that is retained here, of their best works, are retained here in Zimbabwe. So one can look at it as a kind of confirmation that we are really living in an open, global world. But one could also see it as a kind of side statement on the disparities of wealth. How do you see it?
We would love to see the greatest; most of the best pieces stay in the country. But you find some of those who are producing also the best stuff they still have to - they don't have accommodation, they still have to own a car, they still have - so we have very few artists who can afford maybe to donate a piece like I did. That is the only way, otherwise for the government to look at that now for now, and the whole system is going down and everything.

Given the popularity of the art, of stone sculpture, is there any ordinary school that includes sculpting on their curriculum?
Oh, unfortunately not. You'll find a lot of artists they learn through other artists, like I am doing at my studio, like many other established artists are doing. But so far we don't have like a real art school doing that. But you'll find a lot of people they teach painting, they teach drawing, or graphics or whatever. Maybe because of the logistics of moving the stones, so the only way a lot of people learn is through other established people.

Do you hope that your children will be sculptors?
Yes, they are very keen, but you know like my children are still under 10-years. Maybe they see me on the television and they see me maybe on international news, or whatever, they enjoy it and even in the papers, they love it, they want to try it. But I've always discouraged them for now until they can really think for themselves, I don't want to push it upon them. I want them to love it. What I would like them to do for now is to concentrate on their education side.

[Interview at the Book Café in Harare Oct. 25, 2002]

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