Two hours from Toronto in an area known more for its lakes than its culture lies an outdoor art gallery with more than 500 pieces of Zimbabwean stone sculptures. That place is ZimArt near Rice Lake, a unique sculpture garden/gallery that just may contain the most comprehensive collection of Shona sculpture in Canada. What, you might wonder, is a Zimbabwean sculpture gallery doing in Ontario’s Kawarthas lake district? Good question.
Zimbabwean Art Near Peterborough, Ontario?
Like most people, I had no idea that the ZimArt gallery even existed, that is until I was invited to explore some of the attractions in the Peterborough and Kawarthas area of Ontario. It was on that day trip that I met Fran Fearnley, a respected editor and publisher and now a passionate curator of Shona sculpture.
Fearnley lived in Zimbabwe in the late 1990’s, where she first discovered and fell in love with Shona sculpture. Returning to Canada, she made it her mission to showcase this art form in Canada, and so for the past 20 years she has been travelling to Zimbabwe, acquiring hundreds of pieces for her gallery.
Fearnley displays these works at ZimArt, a 2-acre bucolic outdoor gallery near Rice Lake where visitors can come to admire or purchase these evocative works in stone. More than 50 artists are represented here in thematic groupings of works that range in size and price – the larger pieces valued in the 5-figure value.
About Shona Sculptures
Shona sculpture is also known as Zimbabwean sculpture, since this unique art form originated in that country. The reason for this is that Zimbabwe is home to The Great Dyke, a 2.5 billion year old geologic ridge that is over 500 km long and contains a vast concentration of stone that is both the hardest and most colourful on the planet (over 200 colours have been geologically catalogued here).
It was this raw material that inspired the first artists who began carving the stone into stylized works that became synonymous with the region and Zimbabwe’s largest tribal group, the Shona (hence the name).
Modern Art With Traditional Roots
Shona sculpture began emerging in the mid 20thcentury, gaining prominence from early artists like Joram Mariga (who many consider the father of the art form), and those who came after him like the 7 members of the Mukomberanwa family whose works have been celebrated worldwide.
Modern in style but often derived from traditional roots, Shona sculptures are evocative in nature, tapping into universal human experiences, whether that is expressing beauty, joy, grief, or spirituality.
Authentic Shona sculptures are carved and polished by hand, a process that is labour-intensive and sometimes offers surprising results even for the artists, as colours that are often hidden in the stone emerge during the carving and finishing.
ZimArt’s Artist in Residence Program
Fran Fearnley does more than just collect and sell the Zimbabwean art that she loves. In 2003 she established a not-for-profit that raises money to support vulnerable children in Zimbabwe. And since she is personally connected to the artists whose work she purchases, Fran also offers an artist-in-residence program at her ZimArt farm/studio.
Each year, Fran invites a different artist to travel from Zimbabwe and spend the summer here in Ontario. Their finished works are displayed on the property and the sculptors provide educational demonstrations for visitors, while continuing to work on new projects.
Meeting Sculptor Tutani Mgabazi
On my visit to ZimArt, I met Tutani Mgabazi,a 44-year old artist who has been carving stone since he was 7 years old. Born into a family with 2 uncles who are also artists, Tutani already had his sculptures in the Zimbabwean National Gallery by the time he was 15. His work is known internationally as well with pieces in Germany, the Netherlands, the U.S. and Asia.
Unassuming despite his international success, Tutani was happy to answer questions about his art and the process that goes into creating his sculptures. Like other subtractive sculptors, Tutani explained that it is often the stone itself that inspires the ‘subject within’ and the artist simply reveals that figure by removing material from the stone. For this reason, Tutani rarely sketches, but lets the stone be his working sketchbook, which evolves as the stone reveals its veins and colours.
He admits that sometimes two ideas may compete to come out of the same stone, but this is all part of the organic nature of his process and rather than fight it, Tutani goes with whatever the stone dictates.
Springstone, a particularly hard Serpentine, is Tutani’s favourite material, sourced near Guruve where Tutani grew up. Springstone is known for its outer ‘blanket’ of reddish brown colour and the fact that the stone polishes to a high shine. Tutani has learned to ‘read’ the stone by wetting it to reveal its colours, and carving and polishing his subject to take advantage of them.
Beauty is a popular theme for Tutani, and he often finds it in the graceful curves of the female form, which he sculpts into stylized pieces that are sometimes literal, sometimes figurative.
And in all cases, Tutani judiciously uses both rough and polished textures to tell exactly the story he – and the stone – wants to tell.
Falling for Shona Sculpture
I’ve always been an admirer of figurative sculptures, especially when I get to appreciate them in outdoor settings (there’s a beautiful collection in Myrtle Beach at Brookgreen Gardens). So with its fluid forms, juxtaposed textures and distinctive colours, it was no surprise that I became an immediate fan of Shona sculpture, and Tutani’s in particular. It didn’t hurt that my first introduction to this unique Zimbabwean art form was in an idyllic rural setting, wandering across sunny lawns and between large shade trees as I discovered each piece.
What did surprise me, though, was that I got to experience this authentic, evocative African art at ZimArt, an unexpected gem of a gallery that is practically in my own backyard.
TIP: ZimArt celebrates its 20thanniversary this year and will be hosting special events as well as a new artist-in-residence for 2019, Wimbai Ngoma. The gallery is about 2 hours east of Toronto and open from June to October, making for a great summer road trip. Admission is free for visitors. To plan your visit, and confirm their opening hours, check out the ZimArt website.
If you want to add in a delicious farm-to-table lunch before or after your gallery visit, a great option is only 20 minutes away at Elmhirst Resort on nearby Rice Lake.
Special thanks to Peterborough & Kawarthas Tourism who hosted my visit to ZimArt and Elmhirst.