For Brian Nyanhongo, it begins with a rock.
He’ll spend entire days in a Zimbabwean quarry searching for the perfect stone, one that lets him know that inside all of that rock, there is a work of art waiting to be freed by his hammer, chisel and vision.
Nyanhongo is one of the 14 artists whose work is on display at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden through Nov. 16 in Chapungu: The Great Stone Sculptors of Africa.
Usually, Nyanhongo has an idea in mind while he’s perusing the quarry’s selection of multi-ton merchandise. But Nyanhongo’s will to create is trumped by the stone’s willingness to yield to his creativity.
“You must listen to the stone,” Brian Guthrie, the exhibit’s curator, said. “Often I‘ll ask Brian [Nyanhongo] what he’s carving and he’ll say, ‘I don’t know yet.’ He has an idea of what he wants to do, but it’s whether the stone will allow him to do it.”
Shona sculpting, as it came to be called for Zimbabwe’s largest tribe, was given new life in the 1950s when Frank McEwen, the director of the national art gallery, began encouraging local artists to create in any medium.
“His only rule was ‘make something you would give to an elder in your family and not sell a tourist,’ ” Guthrie said.
This first generation of Shona sculptors, which included Nyanhongo’s father, focused on art that communicated the beauty of traditional African cultures in white-ruled Rhodesia.
Nyanhongo and his contemporaries — mostly those that started carving after 1980 — have expanded upon this, seeking more universal themes and more varied inspirations, including from Europe.
“The Western world has long borrowed from Africa,” noted Tapfuma Gutsa, another featured artist whose works include Tribute to Matisse. “I find no problem in borrowing from them.”
The most prominent of Nyanhongo’s pieces on display, a towering sculpture near the garden’s entrance carved in springstone and titled Silent Pride, is a tribute to the humility and quiet strength of women.
Several of the sculptures have overtly political and social themes, such as Nicholas Mukomberanwa’s The Corrupting Power of Money, which shows a squat and unsympathetic man hunched over grain that he has stolen despite being wealthy.
Nyanhongo, whose three pieces in the exhibit are joined by two of his sister Agnes’ and one of his brother Euwitt’s, still wants to focus on the Shona culture that prompted his father to start carving.
“There are certain parts of our culture that are being overlooked because of modernity,” Nyanhongo said. “Some of those things are being eroded away. I just want to put it in stone, as a reminder to future generations.”