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Serene stone sculpture from a violent country

A notable exhibition of Zimbabwe's leading sculptors has opened in Vancouver's botanical gardens
One of the Zimbabwe sculptures, set in the Van Dusen Gardens

One of the Zimbabwe sculptures, set in the Van Dusen Gardens

Sculptors Patrick Sephani and Passmore Mupindiko

Sculptors Patrick Sephani and Passmore Mupindiko

African sculpture — more than 150 pieces of Shona stone carving — began appearing last week at Vancouver's VanDusen Botanical Garden, in preparation for a major North American exhibit of leading sculptors from Zimbabwe.

Two of the artists, Passmore Mupindiko and Patrick Sephani, have been installing the pieces throughout the 55-acre garden in the heart of Vancouver. Zimsculpt, which will be at the garden Aug. 22 through Oct. 4, is an international traveling exhibition of several of Zimbabwe's leading artists, and VanDusen is its only North American stop.

It is both a reminder that some very good things can come out of a very dysfunctional and violent country. (Sephani smiles and answers, "It's not political" when asked if it is difficult to get the art and artists out of Zimbabwe.) Another lesson: an ancient art and culture can take some very modern adaptations.

The sculptures, generally of a size to work well in a garden, patio, or entry of a home, range from modern interpretations of a Madonna to traditional images of animals and to abstract techniques of shape and theme that would be seen in any modern museum. The work is primarily of stone in the geological family of Serpentine, a very hard stone usually mined by hand in Zimbabwe. Artists use stone tools and their art goes through a complex finishing process that involves sanding the pieces in water and polishing. Although the sculpting tradition is ancient, Zimbabwean stone sculptures have been a part of the international art scene only since the 1960s. The noted curator Frank McEwan, formerly of the Musee Rodin in Paris, is credited with introducing Shona sculpture to the West.

At VanDusen, the artwork will be shown in space that already includes several major large pieces, some dating from a 1976 Vancouver International Stone Sculpture Symposium. Garden Director Harry Jongerden hosted a Zimsculpt exhibit in his previous position at Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario, and put a priority on bringing the sculpture to Vancouver when he joined VanDusen in 2008.

The Zimbabwean sculptors, Mupindiko and Sephani, will demonstrate their carving technique during the exhibition, which is free with Garden admission. Curator Vivienne Croisette is also traveling with the exhibit. The sculpture will be for sale, with part of the proceeds going to support the Garden, which is conducting a $16 million fundraising campaign to build a new headquarters and exhibit area.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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