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.
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. He says he sells his pieces sell from 500 – 20,000 to US dollars each depending on their size and complexity.
“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.
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 helps keep the country’s centuries-old heritage of telling stories through stone alive and contributes to the country’s income.
“By bringing art buyers across America, Europe, China and other places to Zimbabwe that is a value addition that the stones have been able to give. Not only from there but writers, publishers, Zimbabwe benefits from the whole value chain,” Chikukwa said.
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.
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. Numerous books have also been written about his art.
The artist is now imparting his skill to other upcoming artists through residencies where he emphasises technique and business skills.
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 art centre so that he can ensure that Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture legacy remains alive.