At approximately the same time as Europe began to emerge from the Dark Ages, the people of what is today Zimbabwe were engaging in modern day’s most important and impressive tradition of stone carving. Based primarily in oral tradition, the Shona people of Zimbabwe’s history was rather susceptible to distortion and colonial sentiments. However, if one is to ignore these fabrications in the name of truth and reality, Shona people tell—still in a primarily verbal form—of the most impressive monument to their culture: Great Zimbabwe.
Shona culture began originally in the plateau between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers where the Bantu people supplemented a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with livestock and smelting, as well as trade with Muslim merchants. After the year 1000, a new group of people arrived and absorbed the Bantu’s into what is now known as the Shonas, who improved mining techniques, introduced cattle as the primary sort of livestock, and increased trade, thus creating a mercantile economy with growing settlements. Great Zimbabwe was the pinnacle of these settlements, made of more than a million hand-cut granite blocks—running out of granite, the kings of the settlement decreed that each visitor to the court should bring three granite stones as tribute.
Now in ruins, Great Zimbabwe symbolized expansive trade and great development. After the Africans of the Zambezi Plateau won liberation from the white minority, they decided to pay tribute to the great settlement by naming their country Zimbabwe, which means “house of stone and gravesite of great chiefs”. Racism and colonial thought has induced a culture of criticism and doubt surrounding the building of Great Zimbabwe—some scholars attribute pre-Christian Mediterraneans, and others give credit to Phoenecians, while perhaps most far fetched is the theory that the settlement is the Kingdom of Ophir, as described in the Old Testament. However, none of these inquiries or discourse were participated in by African or Shona people—rather, this was a debate of white, ethnocentric scholars and speculators with no background in the oral tradition of the region. This was further encouraged by the country’s roots in colonialism and deep sentiments of pain and cultural destruction that came with the creation of Rhodesia.
Even still this conceptualization continues with many art scholars who consider Frank McEwan the catalyst of the modern Zimbabwean sculpture movement. While certainly McEwan, art critic and former curator of the Museé Rodin in Paris, had a certain effect, bringing the attention of the West to the art, and providing the foundations for artist co-ops in the country, the art itself is deeply entrenched in the Shona tradition. It finds itself a sort of culmination of political and social turmoil, as well as an expression of a unique and deeply spiritual family-oriented culture. Shona art is, in many ways, an art that lives in emancipation, women’s rights, and liberalism. For these reasons, as well as strictly aesthetic ones, it is something to love and need.