Top Zimbabwean sculptors promoted by the Shona Sculpture Gallery would never dream of using soapstone – so what do they use?
Locally sourced hard serpentine stone is the ideal sculpture medium…
What stones do the sculptors use?
Zimbabwean sculptors source their raw materials locally – that is, in the north, east and middle of Zimbabwe. The stones they use most frequently belong to the geological family Serpentinite. Serpentine is a sedimentary rock, originally deposited on a sandy seafloor. It is also metamorphic, since subsequent exposure to intense heat and pressure over hundreds of millions of years has transformed those deposits into hard stone. Serpentines are rich in iron, so when the stone weathers it turns a rust colour.
In Zimbabwe, they occur as part of the Great Dyke, a horseshoe-shaped geological formation stretching through the north and east round to the centre of the country. The natural weathering processes are now exposing the rocks at the surface. Colours range from yellow and green, through brown to black.
Serious sculptors prefer the hardest varieties of serpentine such as springstone, fruit serpentine and leopard rock. These dense stones have extremely fine grains and uniform structure, making them ideal raw materials for sculpting.
Types of serpentine stone
‘Springstone’ is the type of Zimbabwean serpentine that the sculptors use most frequently. The best-known springstone mines are in the Mvurwi area of northern Zimbabwe.
The reasons for this popularity are: Mvurwi is only 90 minutes from Harare, the mine is reasonably accessible by truck, and the springstone occurs in large pieces. The fact that it emerges from the ground in huge sections means it’s perfect for making larger works that are also frost resistant, and so are suitable for outdoor display even in temperate climates.
Leopard rock is a hard and unusual variety of serpentine. It comes from a few small mines in Nyanga, eastern Zimbabwe, and gets its name from the black spots on a pale background. There is a sub-variety from Shamva, north of Harare, which is stronger yellow colour.
Colourful fruit serpentine comes from the Kwekwe area, south-west of Harare. This type of serpentine is not widely used, which, given its lovely colouring and slight translucence, is a real shame.
This stone is, in many ways the opposite of springstone. It occurs in small scattered pockets – each one a unique combination of colour and internal pattern and texture – and the mines may only be a few cubic metres. When the mine is finished, you won’t see that particular type of stone again. The mines are dotted around up steep slopes, difficult to access. Stone must be quarried by hand, and transported manually downhill and thence to the roadside. It’s labour-intensive, slow and expensive. Also, the stone itself rarely comes in large pieces, often having fault-lines running across it that keep the pieces small.
So, for these very practical reasons, sculptures made from fruit serpentine are rare as it is such a hassle for the artists to acquire.
A similarly colourful serpentine comes from the north of Zimbabwe, near the town of Guruve; the artists call it ‘flower serpentine’.
This purple and green variety of serpentine comes from the Chiweshe area of northern Zimbabwe not far from Mvurwi. It has lovely colours, and the mine is much easier to get to than the fruit serpentine area around Kwekwe.
For that reason, cobalt stone is much more commonly used. However, it is softer than the other serpentine varieties mentioned so far. It is also more stratified in composition than other serpentines, and suffers from the problem of having fissures between these layers. Often, this leads to cracks. Therefore, Shona Sculpture Gallery is very careful about any works in cobalt and we don’t tend to have any for outdoor display.
Another very common type of serpentine is what is colloquially known as ‘opal stone’ (a very soft pale green serpentine) and comes from Chiweshe, north of Harare. Also pictured is the white variant known as ‘Domboshawa opal stone’ from, you guessed it, Domboshawa.
Because this stone is really soft, not much harder than soapstone, Shona Sculpture Gallery does not show any work in common opal stone (or Domboshawa opal stone) for outdoors. In fact, we rarely have pieces in these stones at all.
Please note that all types of ‘opal’ serpentine are soft, not much harder than soapstone, and are not suitable for outdoor display in winter. Any website that suggests ‘opal stone’ is as hard as the opal gemstone is misleading the reader and revealing a basic lack of knowledge of Zimbabwean materials.
A number of other types of stone (that are not of the serpentine family) that are perfect for sculpting are found in Zimbabwe. These stones are often even harder than the hardest serpentines and some, such as the currently fashionable red jasper, require electric tools for shaping.
They include the mineral verdite which is an intricate swirl of shades of green, the mineral lepidolite which in pure form is a perfect lilac/purple and white marble (and sometimes even pink) which is identical to that found in the Italian Alps and is very hard with large crystals.
Zimbabwe’s stone mines
Mining for raw stone in Zimbabwe is a small-scale operation. Mines are usually small open-cast pits, dug by hand on scorching hot hillsides, on steep slopes and accessed only by footpaths.
They are too small to cause any environmental damage and form a valuable alternative source of income to rural communities.
Shona sculpture movement – Zimbabwe’s art history
Sculpture process – stages in the process from raw stone to sculpture
Common themes in Zimbabwean sculpture
Shona spirit beliefs – how they inspire Zimbabwean sculpture
Life as a sculptor – comments and insight from Zimbabwean artists
Care and repair – helpful guidance on looking after your sculpture