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Indepth Arts News:

"Chapungu: Custom & Legend, A Culture in Stone"
2003-05-31 until 2003-10-31
Chicago Botanic Garden
Glencoe, IL, USA United States of America

The Chicago Botanic Garden and Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance celebrate the connection all humanity shares with nature, culture and art this summer and fall in an historic, collaborative exhibition of 90 contemporary African sculptures never before seen in the Chicago area.        “Chapungu: Custom & Legend, A Culture in Stone” is the highly expressive contemporary stone art of African artists from Zimbabwe, many from the Shona Tribe, who sculpt monumental creations from rock such as serpentine, verdite, opal, cobalt, springstone and granite. “Chapungu” is the Shona name for an eagle of great presence, a messenger of the gods that symbolizes a protective spirit.

In association with Chapungu Sculpture Park, Harare, Zimbabwe, the Chicago Botanic Garden and Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance join creative forces to co-present this important exhibition, from May 31 through Oct. 31, 2003. The Chicago Botanic Garden is located at 1000 Lake Cook Road in Glencoe and the Chicago Park District’s Garfield Park Conservatory is located at 300 N. Central Ave. in Chicago.

       The 90 total sculptures, representing eight universally human themes, range in height from 3 feet to 11 feet and weigh from 600 pounds to 6,000 pounds. They will be displayed in natural, outdoor and indoor settings at both beautiful locations. Complementary programming at the Conservatory and Garden will include weeklong workshops with Shona sculptors. There will be African music, dance and theater presentations; evening programs; storytelling; crafts; cultural gardening programs; sculpture tours; thematic dining; educational programming for children, adults and families; and more.

       Zimbabwe stone sculpture is a profound, deeply human expression of the African people that transcends time and space. Sculptors say their ancestors’ spirits come in dreams and visions to reveal themselves in images that dwell within the stone. These “voices in stone” can almost be heard through the awe-inspiring sculptures, which tell tales of life in traditional and contemporary works of art. In this way, sculptors release life within the stone and their spirits soar within the collective reality of the African people. Having visited the sculptures, viewers leave with the startling realization that they have been blessed by the stones’ varied and emotional messages.

“The Chapungu exhibit … almost exaggerated the brittle sense of language,” one visitor wrote of his experience with the Chapungu sculptures. “I have seen my share of art, and in all the great and proper places, but I have never wept, or lost my breath, or felt as if my body were shedding space, or become supremely dumb and purely liquid in the head, and as finely alone, as I did on that day while the forms of Chapungu let me ride on the contours of very old, and universal, and unbegotten silences.”

The art begins with stones quarried from mines in different parts of the country. Sculptors use non-mechanical tools, often handmade, to craft stone, as there is a general shortage of quality tools in Zimbabwe. Due to the stone’s hardness, chisels, hammers, punchers, tile cutters and metal combs are essential, as is 60 to 800 grit emery paper. When the design phase is complete, sculptors polish their creations with clear wax to bring out the stones’ textures and natural colors.

       Chapungu Sculpture Park has toured the sculptures internationally since 1962. Among its many destinations, the exhibit has been shown at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London; Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia; and the Zoological Garden Museum, Frankfurt, Germany. In the United States, sculptures have recently been displayed at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Superior, Ariz., and at Missouri Botanic Gardens, St. Louis. The sculptures are coming to the Chicago area from Red Butte Botanic Gardens, Salt Lake City. The exhibit is the largest and most complete showing of Shona sculpture in the United States.

       The Chapungu sculptures are organized around eight themes that represent shared human relationships, emotions and experiences.

       At the Chicago Botanic Garden, sculptures represent:

The Family - Community is family and support is shared in hard times. Those who have passed on also are part of this family and are now guiding spirits.

Custom and Legend - The cement that binds and individualizes a community. For many generations, by the evening fires in village huts, life stories are told by the elders to teach, admonish and inspire children.

Social Comment - In all countries, artists are sensitive to, and comment on, issues that affect their society, often well before these issues become common knowledge.

The Role of the Elders - In Shona society, older women are particularly revered but all elders are held in deep respect. They teach and admonish children, advise in marital matters and consult with the spirit world to determine the first sowing of seed. They record history and bless a newly born child. After death, they will continue to guide the family.

At Garfield Park Conservatory, sculptures represent: The Role of Women - The binding force in Shona families. Their burden, borne with fortitude and good humor, is never ending.

The Spirit World - The spirits of the Shona great God ‘Mwari’ can only be approached through ancestral spirits. It is they who protect, guide and admonish families and individuals through the living N’angas and spirit mediums.

Village Life - Simplicity, frugality, a strong sense of order, the good behavior and happy faces of children, and a respect and courtesy between people characterize traditional village life.

Both venues will feature sculptures representing: Nature and the Environment - Trees, plants, animals, insects, reptiles and birds are an integral part of Shona history and culture, where the lives of nature and humanity intertwine and interact.

“This is the most important exhibition of contemporary African art ever seen in the United States,” said Roy Guthrie, Chapungu Sculpture Park director and curator of the co-exhibition. “African art was abstract for centuries before abstract was ‘discovered.’ Many of the great European artists were influenced by African art. And now we’re trying to show that there is vibrant contemporary sculpture in Africa.”

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