Monday, October 25, 2010


Remember Mudzimu? It was a tiny, beautifully landscaped little art gallery across the street from Salz Tannery (before it became "THE Tannery"). Its proprietor, longtime Santa Cruz resident Braden Coolidge, specialized in stone sculpture in the Shona spirit by contemporary artists in Zimbabwe, often paired with the 2-D work of local artists like Melinda Baker, Anna Oneglia, Kent Perry, and James Aschbacher (infamous in these posts as Art Boy). Far more than just an art dealer, Braden traveled often to Zimbabwe, developed close friendships with individual artists and their families, and worked tirelessly to import and show their work in the States.

But Fortune turned her wheel, lovely little Mudzimu was bulldozed to make way for a storage locker, and Braden moved on to galleries in Carmel and Santana Row. But he continues his relationship with the artists of Zimbabwe, most recently in setting up the gorgeous new exhibit, Celebrating Nyanhongo: A History Carved in Stone, at Gallery i Fine Art on Cannery Row in Monterey.

Claud Nyanhongo was a pioneer in the sculpture revival that began in the late 1950s. No less than five of his extraordinarily gifted offspring are featured in the Monterey show: Gedion (whose work has been widely shown and collected in Germany, France, England, Hong Kong, Africa, and the States), his sisters Agnes and Marian, and brothers Wellington and Moses.

We've always loved Gedion's work, but we may be prejudiced; not only have we had the pleasure of getting to know him over the last few years, during his frequent visits to Santa Cruz, he and Art Boy once swapped artwork. James did a painting of Gedion's family, and the next summer, Gedion brought us a portrait he'd carved of us in rich, black serpentine. We were thrilled! We met Moses for the first time last year; one of the youngest members of the clan, he's already doing remarkable work. Both Gedion and Moses were down in Monterey on a grey, rainy afternoon last weekend for the opening of the Nyanhongo show.

Gedion (above, with the tools of his trade) has described his sculpting as a process of setting free the spirit that's already alive within the stone. To wander among the dozens of pieces in the Monterey show, figurative, animal or abstract, is to revel in the spirit of Shona culture and tradition. Mothers cradle babies, fish wriggle up out of the stone, birds preen, lovers coo and spark. Many of the figures are strong females, declaring their pride or poised for flight.

Carved from native Zimbabwe stone (serpentine, opalstone, green serpentine, springstone), the pieces offer a visual symphony of color and texture. Some are smooth, polished to a sheen in tones of black, green, copper or grey, others feature much more of the rough natural stone. The most interesting pieces combine the two.

Look at my favorite, Moses' "Crazy In Love." (Thanks for posing, Moses!) The lovers' rough-hewn clothing and the detailed texture of their hair sets off their polished, glowing faces, joined in a kiss. But it's those wildly expressive hands, gesturing off in all directions at once, that tell the rest of the story!

And feast your eyes on James' favorite, Gedion's haunting, provocative "With My Treasure." From her transported face, we can see what comfort and solace she gets from running it through her fingers. But what exactly is her treasure? It could be grain or sand, or diamonds or gold, or the spirit of life itself flowing out of the heart of the stone.

This is an irresistible show, even within the strict confines of a gallery setting—white walls, hard edges, slick glass surfaces. But these sculptures are like beautiful pedigreed animals in a pet shop: each one needs to go to a loving home to be lived with, so its true spirit can emerge and thrive. In the meantime, you can take a virtual tour of the show right this minute, but you owe it to yourself to cruise down to Monterey (685 Cannery Row), and experience these pieces in person, in all their sensuous, tactile glory.

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