[ The following essay has been adapted with the kind permssion of the Director, Chapungu Sculpture Park, from Chapungu: The Stone Sculptures of Zimbabwe (1995). All images © Chapungu Sculpture Park, Harare.]
Bernard Matemera is acknowledged to be one of Zimbabwe's master sculptors. Born in 1946 in the Northern district of Guruve, he has spent his entire professional career at Tengenenge where he occupies the position of figurehead amongst the artists in the community.
International recognition and indeed a genuine appreciation in his native country has been hard won. As a child he showed great talent at wood carving and enjoyed traditional rural crafts such as modelling clay, but as with many other of today's sculptors, it was Tom Blomefield and Tengenenge that provided him with the most significant change in his life - an introduction to stone carving. He quickly established an astonishingly individual and powerful style to which he has remained true over many years of exploration, hardship and success. His work has become so uncompromising, indeed demanding (especially of international audiences), that it often takes time before his strong African imagery and subject matter can be assimilated and understood. Animals, spirits, people and the creatures which inhabit his dreams have faithfully provided him with subject matter throughout his career. They demand attention, cannot be ignored and remain with the viewer long after they have disappeared from sight. His reluctance to discuss his work only serves to help the process of sending the sculptures out on their own in the world, fully formed and capable of communicating in universal language of powerful, emotional, sexual, physical and culturally challenging imagery. F. Mor, the author of Shona Sculpture, describes Matemera's work in the following terms, "His African neo-expressionism, often represented in enormous and deliberately grotesque dimensions, oscillates between the humorous and the tragic." Many of his subjects bear the mysterious physical trademark of three toes and three fingers - a recurring element in the artist's dreams, but an actual physiological fact amongst a community from which he began as an artist (being one of only a few who remained throughout the war of Independence), but also consistently faithful to his beliefs and sense of pride in his country with its inherited cultural and spiritual ancestry. A respected critic of Zimbabwean stone sculpture, Celia Winter-Irving, writes about Matemera's work with a deep understanding of the community in which it is created:
"There is in these sculptures an unspent power and a reserve of energy. They speak both of the force within them and the force behind them. They are the product of great strength of mind as well as strength of the hand; of a strength of will as well as a strength of physique. They are indeed a celebration of the monumental. "
In the last few years he has received tremendous critical acclaim and international attention with the distinction of the prestigious major award at the New Delhi Triennial in 1986, and significant inclusion in many important exhibitions since. He has won first prize in the Annual Heritage Exhibitions at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and his work can be seen in many important collections throughout the world.
Mawdsley, Joceline. Chapungu: The Stone Sculptures of Zimbabwe. Harare: Chapungu, 1997.