ARMED with a small hammer and chisel, Dominic Benhura – a renowned Zimbabwean stone sculptor – meticulously carves a towering figure of a life-size animal from a piece of serpentine stone.
As he chisels delicately, bits and pieces of sharp greyish stone fragments fall off to the ground, and a figure of a bison slowly takes shape.
For him, sculpture is the ultimate reflection of physical reality, and one does not need to be a connoisseur to appreciate his dynamic art.
“I started sculpting when I was four or five years [old] whilst moulding clay while herding cattle. But with stone I started sculpting when I was ten years old when I came to Harare in 1980,” Benhura shared.
What strikes him the most about stone sculpture is that the art involves the systematic elimination of material in order to create artwork.
“With stone it’s quite interesting because with clay you are adding on, or when you make mistakes you can always put it back, but with stone it’s quite different because you will be creating by taking away all the time, which is really fascinating,” he shared.
The most defining moment of his career came when he sold his first art piece to a foreign diplomat at the age of ten. He managed to pay for his education from his art.
Now, over four decades later, the renowned artist is among the most decorated sculptors to ever emerge out of Zimbabwe.
Benhura’s day typically begins early in the morning. Creating a sculpture usually involves a quick sketch of the idea followed by the choice of a suitable stone, which he then meticulously carves into an idea at his studio in the eastern Harare suburb of Greendale.
“In my sculpting, I am inspired by my natural environment – the animals of Zimbabwe, and the figurative work which I do is basically inspired by humanity in general,” the artist said.
His captivating human sculptors, which are devoid of facial expressions, portray the joys of motherhood and vividly capture the perpetual motion of children.
Benhura emphasises on form rather than facial features for these sculptors to make them universal.
“My pieces evolve around happiness, balance and playfulness. They are whimsical, they don’t need any facial features to express themselves. I just use movement to portray expressions in those sculptures,” Benhura said.
One of his iconic pieces depicting child victims of conflict has become a marvel at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, where it is on display.
Raphael Chikukwa, Executive Director of the National Gallery Zimbabwe, said Benhura’s art has propelled Zimbabwe’s art on the international scene.
“Dominic has played a very important role in the Zimbabwean stone sculpture by exhibiting both here locally at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and many other spaces within Zimbabwe and internationally where he has been able to showcase his works as an artist,” Chikukwa said.
In addition, he said, stone sculpture is a treasure for Zimbabwe, as it contributes to the country’s income, and keeps the country’s centuries-old heritage of telling stories through stone alive.
“By bringing art buyers across Europe, America, China and many other places to Zimbabwe, that is value addition that the stones have been able to give,” Chikukwa shared.
David Chidhumo, an avid enthusiast of Benhura’s work, said the artist’s daring designs are in a league of their own.
“It is extraordinary to see the happiness of his vision – how he can portray the features that are not there, but when you look at it, you can feel the features are there,” Chidhumo said.
What makes his work exceptional is that his fans cut across all generations.
“I realized that children relate very well to my work as well as elderly people. They see their little nieces or their sisters within my sculptures, so everybody loves them,” Benhura said.
Due to its international appeal, Benhura’s art is considered by collectors to be a priced treasure.
“Generally my work sells from about 500 US dollars, I would say, and depending on size and the quality of it, sometimes they can go between maybe 10,000 and 20,000 US dollars around the world,” said Benhura.
Throughout his illustrious career, Benhura’s work has been displayed in various exhibitions around the world. He has also bagged many accolades locally and internationally. Countless books have also been written about his art.
The artist is now imparting his skill to other upcoming artists.
“I have inspired a lot of young artists here in Zimbabwe as well as maybe other established artists, they want to emulate what I do, the way I do my business, soberness, teaching other artists,” he said.
Forty-two-year-old Brighton Layson, a resident artist at Benhura’s studio, is among artists who have been nurtured by Benhura throughout his career.
“I was much into human figures, but with the help of ideas and techniques which I got from Dominic, I am no longer limited – I can do different sculptures, I can do abstracts, I can do birds, I can do animals,” Layson said.
Another sculptor, Panashe Wadawareva, has worked with Benhura for over 20 years.
“I have learned a lot through his ideas – teaching us that when you approach a stone you don’t have to be afraid. You must bring new ideas every time and have your own trademark. That helped me to be internationally recognized,” Wadawareva said.
Benhura said his dream is to build an arts center so that he can ensure that Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture legacy remains alive.