John Takawira dominated the Zimbabwean sculpture scene for much of his career. His untimely death in 1989 at the age of 50 left a void still sorely felt today. Born in 1938 in Chegutu, he grew up in Nyanga. Like his brother Bernard, John was greatly influenced by his mother and perhaps more than any of the other sons, retained his traditional upbringing and beliefs and portrayed them endlessly in his sculpture.

John was led to sculpture by his uncle, Joram Mariga, at the age of twenty. Frank McEwen noticed his remarkable talent immediately and he became one of the first members of the Workshop School, with his work being exhibited in the National Gallery from 1963. In 1969 Frank McEwen moved the school to Vukutu, John was to be one of the most important figures within its small community and in such powerfully spiritual surroundings – his work found freedom.

Here he was able to lead a simple and purposeful life and his sculpture could develop – free from the pressures of commercialism and unnecessary interruptions. Images such as his skeletal figures and baboon/man creatures took precedence and came alive. In 1971, Frank McEwen organized a highly significant exhibition at the Musee Rodin in Paris. Here, Takawira´s Skeletal Baboon was exhibited and McEwen was to say later, his vibrant Skeletal Baboon, with its almost pleasant grin, was considered by Charles Ratton, ´´perhaps one of the greatest experts on African art forms, to be the best art to come out of Africa in this century´´. It was this exhibition, which set his career in an international context.

John’s uncompromising nature ensured that his development continued apace, producing ever more startling and innovative work. He was one of the first sculptors, for example, to experiment with the surface of the stone; combining polished areas with the unkempt – powerful natural rough skin or leaving evidence of his working methods in the marks etched onto the stone in moments of hurried insight.

Continually exploring spiritual and personal depths, his sculpture used powerful combinations of forms and often carving right through the stone, holes and voids played a crucial part in the overall image, representing the all-seeing spiritual ´´eye´´ of the piece. Willowy and fragile in appearance, his smaller works embodied enormous spiritual superiority and strength. Water Spirit, (1983) is a fine example, with its uneven, liquid surface and forlorn expression.

There is little imposition on the part of the artist and the viewer could be forgiven for thinking his role was purely to assist in the emergence of the spirit. Women play a very visible role in his work – with elongated necks and flowing hair, they look down on the viewer with a detached power. Many seem to have closed eyes as if in contemplation or pain, but the vital role, which John so obviously saw for them, is clear. They embody the strong, creative and empowering personality so inspirational in his mother.

Working in the hardest darkest Springstones, Takawira sought always to be individual and different from those around him. At times a difficult personality, he was nevertheless uncompromising to the end – traits that are perhaps typical in a leader (of international stature) within his own field. Rumor has it that while working this medium John gave it it´s name ´´Springstone´´ because of the way his chisel sprang off the stone when it was struck.

John Takawira won awards in the National Gallery Heritage exhibitions on many occasions and has more work in the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery than any other artist.

Solo Exhibitions:
1975-Tengenenge Gallery, Park Street, Harare
1984-Commonbwealth Institute, London
1985-Feingarten Gallery, Los Angeles
1987-The Gallery Shona Sculpture
Chapungu Village, Harare
African Influence Gallery, Boston, Mass
1989-The Gallery Shona Sculpture
Chapungu Village, Harare

Group Exhibitions:
1964-International Art Exhibition, Lusaka
1965-Commonwealth Arts Festival, New Art from Rhodesia, Royal Festival Hall, UK
1968-New African Arts Festival, The Workshop School Exhibition of Rhodesian Sculptures
1970-Inaugural Exhibitions, Bulawayo Art Gallery, Zimbabwe
1971– Shona Sculptures, the Highpoint Hilbrow Associatian in Agreement with Linda Goodman Gallery
1972-Shona Sculptures of Rhodesia, Institute of Contemporary Arts Gallery, London, UK
1973-National Gallery’s Workshop school, John Boyne Gallery, The Standard Bank, Zimbabwe
1974-Shona Art International, National Gallery, Zimbabwe
1975-Shona Art Phenomenon, South African Association of Arts Gallery
1977-Rhodesian Sculpture
1979-Kunst aus African, Berlin
1981-Nedlaw Sculpture 81 Exhibition
1983-Solidarity Week, Beira, Mozambique Frankfort Gallery, Germany
1985-Contemporary Stone Sculpture from Zimbabwe, Barbican Centre, London, UK
1990– Commonwealth Festival of Arts, Auckland, New Zealand
1991-Spirit in Stone, the Cleverland Museum of Natural History, USA The Spirit Within
1995-Art about Zimbabwe, National Gallery, Zimbabwe
1998-Zimbabwe, African Museum Tervure
1998-Coming of Age, Zeitgenossiscle, Germany
2003-Chapungu, Royal Botanic Gardens kew London, UK

Collections:

  • National Gallery, Zimbabwe
  • Chapungu sculpture Park, Zimbabwe
  • Beit Giorgis Trust collection, Pretoria, South Africa
  • McEwen collection, the British Museum, UK
  • Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfort, Germany
  • Hauptbahof, Frankfort, Germany
  • Collection Olivier Sultan, France
  • Collection Dominique Girbert, France
  • The Joseph G Raeber collection, Dornach, Switzerland
  • Workshops: No information of John attending any workshops.

Awards and Achievements:
1981-First Prize Annual Nedlaw Exhibitions, National Gallery, Zimbabwe
1982-Consolation Prize, annual Nedlaw Exhibition, National Gallery, Zimbabwe
1983-A work by John Takawira featured in a stamp issue of Common wealth, PTC, Zimbabwe
1986-Prime Minister Robert Mugabe bestows special awards for outstanding  contributions to the      sculptural movement.
1986-Invited Artist, Zimbabwe heritage Exhibition, national Gallery of Zimbabwe

Artist Narrative:
John was one of the most significant artists in Zimbabwe.  Perhaps he was the most consistently imaginative person who regularly broke new ground in the imagery he employed and the methods in which he used the hard stone.  In his work he allowed himself to be guided by Mwari as he saw him and in fact Takawira’s sculptures could be part of the original scheme of things and the work of a divine hand.  While greatly admired by aspiring artists, the overall excellence of his work made a major contribution to the art form in Zimbabwe.  John, paradoxically, placed his work both within the Shona tradition and in Contemporary art.  He often said that his works were of Museum quality, and he meant that they can talk for many years.  John reached a level unsurpassed in the expression of the nature or spirit relationship.  In his work he opened up new possibilities for metamorphosis and spirit possession and gave a new significance to the spiritual engagement with the real world.

Bibliography

1-Olivier Sultan, Life in Zimbabwean stone sculpture, SP LITHO Printers, 1999, Zimbabwe

2-Celia Winter Irving, Stone sculpture in Zimbabwe, Roblaw Publishers, Harare, 1991, Zimbabwe

3-Ben Joosten, Sculptors from Zimbabwe, the 1st generation, Nijmege Printers, The Netherlands, 2001

4-Doreen Sibanda, Zimbabwe stone sculpture-A Retrospective, Preeigraph,  Mauritius, 2004

5-Kristin Diehl, Zimbabwean sculpture 2002, Germany Embassy in Zimbabwe