Celia Winter Irving

"The meaning of life is coming to the surface"

Celia Winter Irving writes and works extensively on art and sculpture, and works since 2004 as curator at the National Gallery in Zimbabwe. She was born in Melbourne, Australia, where she was director of the Irving Sculpture Gallery in Sidney. In Zimbabwe she has worked with the SAPES Trust and with Chapungu Sculpture Park.

She writes a column in the daily The Herald on art. Her books include monographs on sculptors Lazarus Takawira, Anderson Mukomberanwa, Agnes Nyanhongo and Philip Kotokwa. In Tengenenge Art Sculpture and Painting World (Eerbeek Foundation, Netherlands 2001) she traces the history and achievement of the sculpture community in Guruve founded by Tom Bloomfield, while Scottie the Cat at Tengenenge (Tengenenge Pvt, Mvurwi, Zimbabwe) celebrates the animal, and especially cat, sculptures at Tengenenge.

In New Visions In Stone (commissioned by art promoters Tim & Dawn Anderson with Glenn Sullivan, Harare 2003) she discusses new expressions of stone in contemporary stone sculpture in Zimbabwe.

Do you see new trends in expressing identities in Zimbabwean stone sculpture?
I think when you look at the early sculptors' way of life and worldview, it was rural, and they lived more in a sort of non-urban environment. These sculptors were very tied into their more traditional spiritualities.

Some did come from urban backgrounds but and of course with Tengenenge in 1960 the majority of sculptors were immigrants from Mozambique , Angola and Zambia . They had come to work on the tobacco farms in the Guruvi area and were very, very tied up with their traditional backgrounds, and significance of the masked dancers.

Now life has changed radically in Zimbabwe and so has the way of life and the worldview. You seem to have even creeping into the more rural backgrounds a much more urbanised culture.

And the social problems of Zimbabwe today are not what they were, they are much more prevalent to the situation now than, say, twenty or thirty years ago. Now Zimbabwe today has a number of problems. Poverty is one, AIDS is another, food shortages, this kind of thing.

The sculptor in Zimbabwe is not somebody who sits in a studio with a grant from his government or her government, making nice little excursions into the post-modern The Zimbabwean sculptor today is often a man or a woman sculpting in their back yard in Chizengwiza, where the man next door is beating his wife and the child next door is being molested by her uncle, you know. So the artist today in Zimbabwe is in the thick of what is happening.

Many of the sculptors are responding to these things in their work. They can't help it because not only are they sculptors, they're fathers, they're brothers, they're sons, they're daughters, they are people looking after ill relations, aged parents, people with social responsibilities and civic responsibilities. And being artists they're quite sensitive and attuned to this kind of thing. So often this sort of thing comes out in their work and these sorts of problems in Zimbabwe are, rather sadly, shaping their identity in terms of what they feel, think and believe.

Yet there is still something of communal identity. You will see a number of sculptures that deal with the family. Now this I do not think is a cliché, nor an aspect of their eye for commodification, not at all. I think that one thing that has remained in Zimbabwe is the closeness of the family and the extended family. That seems to still permeate the modern culture. It is one of these residual values of tradition that is still there —however corrupt you may be and whatever way you got your Mercedes, you will still look after your aged grandmother.

One of the things that are shaping the identity of sculptors very strongly today is their opportunity for travelling. Many of the sculptors, including the sculptors we represent here at Chapungu Sculpture Park, our resident artists and invited artists and people we buy works from, they travel. In these big botanical gardens all over the world, sculptors go and give workshops, have teaching sessions in stone sculpture and whatever. And these trips out do expand and extend the culture boundaries of the sculptors and make them much more cosmopolitan.

I think another thing that is really changing with this globalisation, I think, the whole idea of time and space and distance, which is very different today to what it used to be. With the e-mail and the websites and the travelling you have a lot of very cosmopolitan little gentlemen running about with their stones. Many have websites.

Yet I think that the sculptors are still returning to making sculpture dealing with the traditional spiritual values. You know, I think the Shona religion is one of the most assured religions in the minds of those who believe it traditionally in life after death. I mean, the Christians fiddle around with it and everybody fiddles around with it, but this belief in the fact that your grandfather is an ancestral spirit which was once there and is still in other people is a very positive kind of assurance about life after death, which other religions have not resolved in such a manner. And I think that this is sort of worming away at the back of the heads of many of the sculptors, particularly with the high incidents of AIDS. We have lost so many sculptors here, and I have written so many obituaries for that Herald newspaper. I think that the meaning of life is coming to the surface of people's preoccupations now. Whether it is by domestic violence, whether it is by AIDS, whether it is by road accidents, you know? And I think all this is affecting the sort of sculpture the sculptor makes.

I would like to ask you how you see the market forces influencing. I mean you have to sell at least something in order to survive.
Fine, now I think your first question dealt with the third sort of thing, the market, is that right? Well, a lot of people say that the market for the stone sculpture today is largely out of Zimbabwe , right? It's out of Zimbabwe.

I think that the market is usually outside of Zimbabwe . There are a large number of gallerists and dealers who come here and they buy large numbers of sculptures and take them back and show them in their galleries. I think the market is quite sophisticated in its ideas and understanding of sculpture. I think that the market place today demands standards, which are quite high.

So I think the external market is very good for the standard of the sculpture that is produced. These people are not fools who are going to put it in bargain basements in Woolworth's. They come out here, not as much as they used to, and they know the work, they know the artists, they move around with their drivers or they find the back roads in Chitungwiza.

At the other end of the scale people go on about the tourist market. Well, there are no tourists coming anyway and I do not think there's such a thing as a tourist any more in the world. People come to countries for specific purposes, largely professional, or they may be doing their break from school. I think everybody sort of travels for a purpose these days. And some people may want a little sculpture to take home for a souvenir.

But is the market only looking for quality? Could it happen that the market suddenly just wants owls, for example, or just wants cats?
Well, I think in some instances this is true. You do get say, an art dealer coming over from, let us call it German, who may have a market back where the individual customers or clients who are very interested in cats. So he may say to the sculptor, whose name may be Tendai Smith, "Tendai Smith, will you please make me 30 cats and just one cat like the other cat because I have 30 customers who want one of your cats?”

This could be so. Or somebody wants 50 buffaloes for department store. But it does not often happen, this mass production.

I do not think anybody who really knows and acquires a standard as a sculpture is going to really ask this gentleman to make 50 cats.

But you do find sometimes get unscrupulous dealers here, people who do not pay the sculptors. Or a sculptor is told by e-mail or by telephone "Well, look, I will buy your sculpture and I will send you a bank draft". Two months later the bank draft has not come and the sculptors getting hysterical. They do not write it down, there's no contract, nothing. The sculptor cannot afford a lawyer.

What new developments do you see in sculpture in Zimbabwe?
People say that the sculpture has gone the way of the Makonde and has become debased because of the market place. I do not think so There is a great deal of moving, profound and original work happening now among young sculptors because they are more educated in sculpture and stone than their forebears. There is a lot more stones coming up, beautiful stones, and they are exploring the aesthetic and formal properties of the stone in a much more creative way than the early sculptors because all they had was black serpentine. But now you have fruit opal, opal, the pedolite, butter jade.

Is it only a question of new skills, not of new ideas?
I think there is a greater understanding of the aesthetic and formal properties of the stone and probably a greater understanding of the skills to realise these in sculpture. There are more sophisticated tools coming in, the eye has become a more sophisticated mechanism for looking at sculpture because of the travel, etcetera.

There is a trend towards pure abstraction.

The other thing that's happening is that sculptors are getting very keen on new work on surfaces, new textural devices and approaches to the stone, like this sort of flat snow-like thing that Lovemore James is using out the back, there's the work surface of Joe Mutasa for the clothes etc.

A new thing that's coming up is the torso, which you've probably seen. We do not know where that all hails from, I think from Tapfuma Gutsa. I think there is a new figuration coming up, the exploration of the female form, either torso or clothed, in the sculpture. And some of these torsos are verging on the nudes because these are alarmingly erotic and explicit, not so much in the sort of sexless way of the classical torso but in the way of the nude in Western sculpture.

[Interview on 25 October 2002 at Chapungu Sculpture Park outside Harare]