The Shona Spirit World

The majority of Zimbabwean sculptors are members of the Shona tribe. They have a dual belief system, where their devout Christianity exists side by side with another, older set of beliefs concerning the spirit world. In true African style, the two (often conflicting) belief systems are interpreted flexibly!

Shona mythology and the spirit world

The spirit world works on several levels. All living things, and some inanimate one too, are believed to have a spirit, but human spirits (ancestors) play a more direct role for the living.

The influence of the ancestors

When a person dies, their spirit continues and it can have an influence on events in the community. Just after death, the spirit is feared as unpredictable and dangerous, and the remaining family must pacify it through various rites.

Mudzimu (ancestor) spirits

The passage of time settles the spirit and it becomes a guardian over the surviving family. Such mudzimu (family or ancestor spirits) are central to Shona spirit beliefs, and their presence and influence is so strong and real to their descendants that they remain part of the community.

The most important spirit elder is the deceased head of an extended family, and the surviving generations come together on ritual occasions to honour them. Indeed, every home will have a shrine to their ancestors where descendants honour them and can come to them for help. [Note how remarkably similar these beliefs are to many other communities all over the world, and how they tie communities to particular areas of land.]

N’anga (spirit mediums)

Spirits inhabit a separate but parallel world, and communicate with the living via a medium or n’anga. These people are susceptible to possession by the spirits during a trance, when the spirit takes complete control of their body.

N’anga can divine and heal by the power of the spirit that possesses them. Such spirit possession appears at all levels of Shona religion. Some n’anga are believed to be able to change shape and become animals. This transformation is frequently seen in the work of early artists such as Joram Mariga and Bernard Matemera, where human and animal forms are shared and blurred.

Influence of spiritual beliefs on Shona sculpture

From the start, much of modern* Shona sculpture was inspired by the artists’ spiritual beliefs. Newly installed curator of the National Gallery in Salisbury (now Harare) Frank McEwen propounded a creative atmosphere of individual ‘drawing out’ rather than didactic art school process. In response, the artists’ instinct was to draw on their belief system and represent the spirit world through their art. Some of the artists believe they are possessed by a shave, a wandering spirit who confers artistic ability, or by ancestor spirits with traditional talents such as carving.

The sculptures created in the 1950s and 1960s by early sculptors such as Thomas Mukarobgwa and Joram Mariga were primarily inspired by Shona mythology. The subject matter can be seen as continuing a rich cultural heritage that had previously been mainly oral (folklore) and ritual; various spirit guises, animal metamorphoses, and spirit mediums were represented.

Today’s younger generation of urban sculptors live in a very different world to the rural villages where these beliefs developed. However, many are in close contact with family members in their kumusha or ‘rural home area’, returning home on important days and for family rituals.

Traditional beliefs in spirits and witchcraft etc. are modern beliefs for both urban and rural Shona; they frequently crop up in the more salacious newspaper reports and even in politics!

Whilst they may be bombarded with new influences, young artists retain and express the belief system of their elders. Young artists’ work continues to be ‘culturally authentic’, in that they represent the same set of beliefs, although the style of the sculpture has evolved over the last fifty years.

Stylised imagery of the imperceptible forms of the spirits of the deceased, of nature etc. are common. The spirit world is often represented by a hole (‘negative space’) in the sculpture, forming a portal into another dimension. Spirits are usually conceived of as being full of swirling motion, like a gentle whirlwind.

* Used in this sense to cover the period from 1957 after McEwen joined the nascent National Gallery and used his links in the international art world to give ‘Shona sculpture’ its first international exposure.

This text is copyright and is the intellectual property of the Shona Sculpture Gallery (please see statement on our homepage).

Related links:

Shona sculpture movement – Zimbabwe’s art history

Sculpture process – stages in the process from raw stone to sculpture

Types of stone commonly used by the best Zimbabwean artists

Common themes in Zimbabwean sculpture

Life as a sculptor – comments and insight from Zimbabwean artists

Care and repair – helpful guidance on looking after your sculpture