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Zimbabwean art set in stone at Daniel Stowe 

Botanical garden exhibits the work of Zimbabwean sculptors

A drop of sweat dribbles down Patrick Sephani's face as he stands under a tent, chiseling on a medium-sized chunk of gray stone. At the moment, it's beginning to look like it has wings, but there's no real clue as to what it's shaping up to become.

For Sephani, sculpting is a way of life. He started at the age of 7 and continued sharpening his skills into adulthood — he's now 34. "Within the community where I grew up, there were quite a number of sculptors, so I used to admire and enjoy what they were doing and that's why I joined them to make sculptures."

Sephani, who says he gravitates toward mostly human figures, is a second generation sculptor. "For me, every sculpture that I make is part of myself," he says. "It's like a baby. When you've got a baby, you watch it growing up until it's an adult, but still you need to know where that baby is going to go."

His dedication and skill have taken his works far from his home in Zimbabwe — many now reside in collections in Germany, Spain, Netherlands, U.K. and here in the U.S. Currently, Sephani's work is on display in ZimSculpt, an exhibit featuring more than 100 pieces by Zimbabwean sculptors at Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens. Sephani has been touring with the exhibit and doing demonstrations for the past seven years.

Artists spend hours using chisels, hammers and sandpaper to create the works, known as Shona art, featured in ZimSculpt. Shona communities are known for using serpentine, spring and opal stones, which are native to Zimbabwe and mined from quarries. This practice of chiseling sculptures out of rock was institutionally recognized in the 1950s when the National Gallery of Rhodesia (now the National Gallery of Zimbabwe) began curating the works. Later, regional sculpting communities began to flourish, creating an environment where they could sell their pieces to an influx of tourists. But when Zimbabwe's tourism industry declined in the 2000s, artists found it harder to sell their works.

As a traveling exhibit, ZimSculpt offers a platform for this form of Zimbabwean art, which otherwise might not be easily accessible.

At Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, lifelike sculptures stand alongside alluring flowers, trees, fountains and shrubbery. The expansive garden provides a comfortable sanctuary where they can be seen. One sculpture of a lady seated and reading a book finds the perfect spot by a pond-like fountain.

Much of the exhibit expresses femininity and gracefulness. Attractive head busts and tall slender figures convey whimsical wonder. On the flip side, sculptor Colleen Madamombe drifts away from these idyllic visions in her depiction of an everyday working woman. In "Coming From the Field," Madamombe shapes a farm woman who is in the midst of harvesting, a grain basket resting on her head.

Other sculptures dotting the garden showcase animals; there are lots of birds. But other pieces depict life milestones, contentment and family fellowship: Arthur Fata's "New Beginning" features a baby in its mother's womb; Gift Seda's "Harmony" is comprised of three giraffe-like necks with faces paralleled and arched toward the sky; and Nixon Muti's "Choir" shows two rows of four figures, dark faces protruding from the gray stone in a calm and focused unison.

Contemporary pieces — stark and sleek, yet equal in terms of craftsmanship — are also included in the exhibit, though they are found less frequently in comparison to the many figurative works.

"You have to carve around 10 hours per day for 15 years to be able to do any piece of what you've seen in the garden," says curator Joseph Croisette. "It's a gift from the beginning, but it's a long process and you have to work every day. It's not just mental representation that you can make quickly on a canvas; it's three-dimensional so you work on the piece and it's very special. Few people can do that."

Many of the large works in the exhibit took months of daily labor. While Sephani says he may have a vision at the start of a sculpture, he admits that it can morph into something else. "I can begin with an idea and then that idea can totally change in the process. The final decision is in the stone."

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