Zimbabwean sculpture garden now open to the public in Kingston

Shona sculpture “Starting A Family” by Simukai Collective artist Gift Tembo. Photo submitted.

Zimbabwean gemstone sculptors craft their sculptures by hand, working outdoors, and traditionally displaying their masterpieces in open-air sculpture parks where visitors can meander, observe, and purchase their wares. And now people in the Kingston area can experience a gemstone sculpture park too, without the trip to Zimbabwe.

Gillian Kupakuwana and William Suk and their two children are excited to open their gemstone sculpture garden, The Gunguo Art and History Farm, to the people of Kingston this month.

“I’m from Zimbabwe, originally,” said Kupakuwana. “We bought our first piece of stone art that we fell in love with, shortly after we got married… we were not even really thinking about collecting, but we looked at it and I was like, ‘This is really cool. We should get this.’ [So] we bought it.”

Having grown up in Zimbabwe for most of her life, Kupakuwana said, “I had seen this type of [sculpture] all over the place. It was in my home; my uncle made it. So it was kind of like an extension of existence.”

The young couple had the first piece they purchased in their home; then as academics, they traveled to Zimbabwe for research over the years and began buying more pieces. They fell more and more in love with collecting, said Kupakuwana, “and we soon realized we must begin selling sculptures if we wish to continue engaging the scene on a high level.” 

The Gunguo Art website states that Zimbabwe’s ancient sculptural tradition gained international recognition during the struggle for independence from colonialism. Today, more than 50 galleries worldwide exhibit “Shona” sculpture, named for the country’s largest linguistic group — even though artists hail from all cultural backgrounds. 

Art is a primary tourist draw to Zimbabwe, and the industry supports hundreds of artists and their families. In 2017, Kupakuwana and Suk helped organize and finance an “art incubator” in Zimbabwe called the Simukai Collective, which encourages artists to experiment with other materials and expand their talent.

Suk pointed out “The traditional material to carve in Zimbabwe is spring stone, which is a black stone, and there are some softer colourful stones [colloquially] called opal. It’s not really opal, but it’s called opal.”

However, the traditional carving tools aren’t suited to the harder types of stone available in Zimbabwe, explained Suk. “Varieties of quartz with different mineral inclusions… are challenging to carve, not only because of their hardness but also because when you try to use a chisel on them and break them, they break like glass… in a way which is not predictable for an artist to carve. [Artists] need to know exactly how the material is going to break away so that they can use that knowledge to shape the sculpture… You need to use abrasive materials instead of hitting it; you need to cut it and grind it away.”

Suk went on, “We noticed that sculptors were beginning to experiment with quartz-based gemstones like jasper and agate, but these efforts were hampered by the poor availability of power tools and a downturn in the country’s tourist industry.”

Suk and Kupakuwana saw the Simukai Collective as a way to nurture artistic experimentation and innovation by assembling sculptors from around Zimbabwe to experiment with the field’s latest tools, materials, and techniques, especially focusing on semi-precious gemstones that cannot be worked with traditional hand tools.

Simukai’s workshop was located a block away from where Kupakuwana grew up, in a high-density township of the city of Kwekwe, originally constructed during the colonial era for workers in one of Africa’s largest steel mills. The Simukai Fellowship was active for more than two years. During that time, 11 artists from around Zimbabwe produced 62 gemstone sculptures, Suk said. “We shared our progress on social media, enabling other artists to learn from our experiments.”

Unfortunately, the project collapsed in 2020 when COVID-19 made it impossible to assemble people from different homes into close living quarters for the duration of the residency.

Gunguo Art and History Farm curators Gillian Kupakuwana and William Suk and their children. Photo submitted.

A primary goal in starting Gunguo Art and History Farm here in Kingston is to create an outlet through which the couple can market Simukai sculptures and thereby relaunch and expand the effort. They hope to offer the next iteration of the Fellowship at Gunguo Art and History Farm in 2024, bringing sculptors from Zimbabwe to join forces with colleagues in Canada.

“We’ve started in Zimbabwe because that’s originally where this sculpture is from and where we always travel, but we’re really hoping to make this something that involves Canadian artists as well,” Suk said. One of the reasons for May’s soft opening is “to see who shows up and have conversation starters: what people show up who know artists, or are artists. So rather than only going out and searching for artists, we’re also kind of seeing who the universe brings to us.”

“I’m really excited,” said Kupakuwana. “This passion that we’ve had for a while allows us to not only showcase this sculpture [but] also invite the community that we are part of to enjoy this type of art… We’re hoping the public comes and enjoys and sees this as it morphs and becomes a conversation between artists from different spaces of the world.”

Gunguo Art and History Farm is nestled behind Glenburnie Grocery and Sun Harvest Greenhouse. The sculptures are arranged on a walking trail meandering around an 1820s limestone farmhouse and lilac grove. Viewings must be booked in advance on the Gunguo Art website. Visitors are welcome to bring a picnic or beverage and enjoy the art experience with their family and friends.

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