The Shona, as we now know, are not an ethnic groop. At one point the colonial rulers started to call all tribes living in the south-east of Zimbabwe and the south of Mozambique Shona. Now about 80% of the Zimbabwean people are Shona, and speak many Shona dialects. In the Ndebele language, also spoken in Zimbabwe, "abetshona"means "those from over there". Although not a hundred per cent certain, it is generally accepted that "Great Zimbabwe" was build by tribes which now belong to the Shona. Zimbabwe means "house of stone" and "Great Zimbabwe" was one of the first African settlements built of stone. In those days, Zimbabwe was a centre of the great trade routes, some of which went as far as China.
In Shona culture, religion plays a big part. It is all about good and evil spirits. The good spirits inspire the artist to use his talents. Thes talents are not only sculpture, but also music, dance, literature, painting and so on. There is no special education in these art-forms but most techniques are passed on from father to son. Many of the artists are self-educated, which proves how these arts are rooted in the traditions of the Shona. When they start a sculpture there is no plan of the design, the spirits of the stone will lead the artist. So the only job for the artist is to free the spirit from the stone.
Some people say that Shona-art started about 2000 years ago, but the worldwide popularity started in the1950s. Frank McEwen has been the great inspirator. He was the first director of the Rhodes National Gallery (later the National Gallery of Zimbabwe) in Harare. He had to put on exhibitions of the great masters of the modern world, but when he became inspired by the Zimbabwean artists, who made sculptures popular with the tourists, he became more and more focussed towards African art. He founded artist communities away from the tourist areas, to give the artists a better focus on the African way of working as opposed to the way the European and American tourists wanted things done. The art that was created here was original and showed the feelings of the artist. This was the work McEwen showed at a big exhibition at the Rodin Museum in Paris in 1971 and, from that moment, the popularity increased immensely. Because McEwen gave a more prominent place to African art in the National Gallery this was unpopular with the colonial government and he was fired in 1973. Despite this he kept on promoting the Shona-art all over the world. The influence of Shona-art is visible in the work of many of our modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Miro and Sir Henry Moore. Some of the most prestigious collections of the world contain Shona-art, for instance The Museum of Modern Arts in New York and, of course, the Rodin Museum in Paris. The private collections of the Prince of Wales, Sir David Attemborough and the Rockefeller family also contain sculptures by Zimbabwean artists.