The Tshuma Legacy
The sculptor behind our collection of wooden effigies is Methuseli Tshuma. The name Tshuma [pronounced Chew-Mah] holds iconic status across the African art scene. Methuseli, is the nephew of the late Zephaniah Tshuma, a pioneering sculptor whose iconic work and tragic demise from HIV/AIDS were the subject of a short story by the British writer, Peter Hutton.
When Zephaniah passed away early in 2000, he had become widely revered as Zimbabwe’s greatest wood sculptor. He was especially noted for turning his avant-garde style into an all inclusive family enterprise. However his most dedicated apprentice was always his nephew, Methuseli.
The Tshuma method has in essence, become its own genre of African sculpture, lauded by academics and art enthusiasts continents away. Long disenchanted by the ubiquitous depictions of safari animals and tribal stone sculptures that dominated African art, the Tshumas began sculpting to represent the everyday realities of communal and township life, concomitantly expressing their own existential observations through their work.
Unlike his uncle, who projected morbid humour through macabre subjects, Methuseli prefers to capture the never-ending optimism and vibrant gaiety of everyday Zimbabwean life. He admires these traits saying they are necessary attributes amidst economic hardship and political uncertainty.
To make one of his sculptures, Tshuma must first find timber from a Commiphora africana. This is an indigenous myrrh-producing tree, best suited to his sculptural process. He then carves out an outline of his subject, imprinting further details as he works, before etching the final details to each piece by charring the wood with kindled metal pipes. He prefers to paint his work but is accommodating Harmattan's preference for plain pieces as well. He says: "It is nice to know people admire my sculpting so much that they do not want to see paint!"
Zimbabwe’s once thriving tourist industry, created numerous opportunities for the Tshumas. Like most Zimbabwean artists of this generation, the Tshumas’ buyers were primarily foreign tourists.
During this period, Methuseli’s pieces were exhibited throughout Europe and shortly after his uncle’s death he was invited to Switzerland to host a workshop based on the Tshuma sculptural tradition. However since then, Zimbabwe’s economic and tourism sectors have contracted rapidly, consequently, so have opportunities to exhibit his lifework.
Tshuma is now a widower and the sole provider for his two sons, who are both in full-time education. He had hoped they would one day carry on the family tradition but he says that they are too young to have witnessed the acclaim the Tshuma family once had. He says: “We are not all destined to be artists and I do not expect them to follow my path but it would be nice for them to understand our family tradition. Now all they see is my struggle… I hope things improve, so they can once again take pride in our family name."