Ancient Africa modern art makes a design statement

I have something in common with the late modern artist Pablo Picasso. In 1907 he experienced a revelation when viewing early African masks at the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadero. My revelation was in 1997 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco where these same treasures were lent by Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa. Both Belgium and France had colonies in Africa where modern art as we know it was born at the hands of indigenous tribal artisans.

Then in Zimbabwe I found more of this indigenous carved stone for gardens rooted in the modern movement. They were stone carvings from the Shona, a tribe that has hewn art for a thousand years. Their ancestors may indeed have carved the large bird sculptures that distinguish the Great Zimbabwe Ruins today.

This is a truly handmade art form already well recognized worldwide. A New York Times article stated: “Shona sculpture is perhaps the most important new art form to emerge from Africa this century.” With Shona art flooding out of Africa, the finest works have made it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Musee Rodin in Paris.

At retail, Shona art prices range from easily affordable to much more for the larger sculptures. Those created by some of the known Shona carvers will be more expensive than those by obscure individuals who work out in the villages. Signed pieces by known artists may appreciate over time.

What makes this sculpture so appealing is that it’s entirely handmade, so no two Shona pieces are alike. These interpretive and surreal forms are inspired by the African artists’ dreams, sense of nature and aspects of tribal spirituality. In addition, international sales bring much needed income to a country that is sliding back to subsistence farming under a brutal dictator.

Shona sculpture is usually soapstone or serpentine. The artisans in Zimbabwe work out in the open, often beneath the village tree using the most basic hand tools. They believe their work is a process to “release the spirit in the stone,” making each a spiritual journey into the artist’s world.

Once a sculpture is complete, the artist places it adjacent to a very hot fire to heat the stone. When it’s smoking hot, beeswax is then rubbed onto the surface to bring out its color. After cooling, the sculptures are buffed to a shining finish.

Not all Shona pieces are large, however. Carving is a cottage industry that results in a range of smaller table top sized original sculptures too. These are a great choice to use at poolside, to decorate your patio or outdoor kitchen bar. Unlike modern outdoor art made of heat retaining metal or Corten steel, these low-key stone pieces are less industrial looking, remain cool in the sun and offer a more contemplative in feel.

There are many sources of Shona carvings both online and in stores. Shop online to find the greatest selection of smaller easily shipped pieces.

Be aware that the weight of large garden-size solid stone piece makes them expensive to ship. These are best obtained through a local source. To see more Shona sculptures, visit or just search “Shona sculpture” to find local retailers near you.

Although modern home design is hotter than ever, affordable art for these gardens can be far more difficult to find. Sure, you’ll find mass produced outdoor decor, but who wants the same thing everyone else has?

For modern design lovers, a well selected piece of Shona art is guaranteed to make your landscape unique. Let it become a conversation piece. Share its primitive origins with guests. Then go on to describe the genesis of modern design, deeply rooted in the most primitive cultures on Earth.