Artist with an open heart

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Agnes Nyanhongo with one of her
elegant stone women.

Agnes Nyanhongo, whose work is among the figures in Custom and Legend, a Culture in Stone on display in the lowlands, joined several of us for lunch this week, at the invitation of Eleanor Lahn, a long-time Fairchild volunteer. One of Zimbabwe’s most important artists, Agnes said with an easy smile that she began to sculpt at age 12, learning from her famous father, Claud. She is one of 19 children – there are two mothers and one sibling has died – and her artist family is famous for their sculpture. She went to art school, but picked up the chisel and answered the call of her original impulse in 1980.

Agnes talked about how she allows the stone to tell her what it wants to be, and how it may change as she works, even though her themes are consistent. Roy Guthrie, who for 30 years has championed the African sculptors from his native country through exhibitions and even by supplying their tools and stone, said of the piece Agnes currently is working on – Woman with an Open Heart -- that “she looked at the stone for two days before even touching it.” Then she decided on the base, and simply watched it for another two days.

Concentrating on women’s roles in family and society, her marvelous pieces express a radiant dignity. Woman of Authority, one of her works memorializing a Zimbabwe heroine who died in the fight for independence, stands near a more personal piece, showing her grandmother carrying water. “She lived to 105,” Agnes said, “and always did the work by herself so she could be part of the family, not just an elderly woman cast aside.” The Chapungu tradition, begun 50 years ago, is to use only hand tools even when polishing portions of the stone that so beautifully contrast with rough unworked surfaces. Agnes said she does the polishing by hand, using finer and finer sandpaper, and then applies bees’ wax to allow the wax to be absorbed into the stone.  Finally, she said, the area is buffed to its fine finish.

The exhibit has taken Agnes to gardens around the United States, but usually in the summer, she said, from July through September, and then she returns home. The pieces have been displayed at Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town, South Africa, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and throughout Germany. A permanent outdoor exhibit of 82 Chapungu works is displayed in Loveland, Colorado.