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Jonathon Matimba: An Appreciation of the Legendary Zimbabwean Sculptor

It was about seven in the evening when he arrived at our rural home in Mapfurira village, Nyatate, Nyanga district, in the eastern highlands, Zimbabwe. He came with auntie Linah and my second cousin, Tatenda, his own niece. Jonathon Matimba. I have known him for all my life. He stays about 100 metres from this rural home of ours, still in Mapfurira village, so I grew up knowing him, but I knew him, mostly, as an uncle. There was good reason for him to come over to our place unannounced. He is a relative. He was coming to see me, his son, and I was with my brother’s wife, Gamuchirai, visiting my parents.

I had arrived home the previous day, 18 June 2013. I never thought I could be writing much about this excursion home, for I was taking it as an opportunity to cool off a bit, to forget about the hustle and bustle of living, of trying to make a career in the harsh city of Chitungwiza. So, I left him alone as he talked to my father. My mother was talking to auntie Linah, my mother’s older blood-sister. I could only answer one or two questions directed at me.

We were about to have our dinner when Uncle Jonathon started focusing on me. He asked me how I was doing. I answered him politely, “I am doing fine, Uncle”. It was a guarded reply. So he said, “Come nearer, Tendai…., there is something I want to know”. He speaks in a very low, soft, husky, gruffy voice as if he is running on low batteries, so I pushed towards him. We were seated on cement benches that covered two sides of the kitchen. Pointedly, he said, “I heard you are now a writer”. And I said, “Yes, I am, Uncle”. He asked me what I had written, and whilst I was telling him about Zimbabwe: The Blame Game, my latest non-fiction book, I remembered he was a notable sculptor, himself.

I drifted back to 1992. It was drought year…so the crops we had planted in late 1991 had since dried. Jonathon had just retired from the army. We had a lot of time on our hands, but we played. I was waiting for my “O” level results. But Uncle Jonathon had work for us. He would come early in the morning, had an old beaten truck, and he would say, “Bernard and Tendai, hop in guys”. We would do so, after all, he had the cousins we played with. So the bunch of us (me, Bernard, Fungai (his son), Crispen, Paddington, etc…) would go to the Muchena Mountains to unearth the stones for uncle’s sculptures. We sometimes didn’t like it, so we would evade him. But most of the time, I enjoyed it. He is a great storyteller…he would tell us of the liberation war. He called himself John Cane. I haven’t been able to figure out where that name came from. So we grew up calling him that, especially when we were playing at imitating our elders, we would imitate how he would retell those war stories.

the master and his craftsInstantly, I knew what I wanted to do. I would write about him. I would tell his story. It was obvious he wanted to explore that with me, I discovered. So we agreed to explore it. I had decided I wanted to write an appreciation or a biographical piece about him, so we agreed to have some talk about all that in the morrow day, at his home.

The next day, I couldn’t make it to his place as we were doing all sorts of chores at home. It was the after, two days later, when I went to his place. And, after a wonderful egg and baked potatoes breakfast from auntie Linah, we started to talk. I had decided it was easier to have an interview to get into the mind of this reclusive genius who is also my uncle. I knew it was easier to ask him some difficult questions I couldn’t have asked if it was just going to be a general talk. He says he is not reclusive. But he couldn’t fool me here. He sure is. I don’t remember one friend of his. He was always alone. He preferred our company to that of people his age.

He started by talking of his latest project, his latest portfolio of work. It is a collection of pieces, mostly of the animal world versus the human world. He tells me he had created these pieces from Munhacha tree which he had uprooted from my family’s plot. I knew this tree on a personal level from early childhood memories. Once, during the liberation war years, we did sleep under this tree, hiding away from Ian Smith’s Rhodesian forces. Many times after the war, this tree had provided a steady supply of the sweet Nhacha fruits for us. So, I wasn’t sure it was worth it. But straight away I realized that the tree wouldn’t only stay in my own memories, but would ignite many more memories through the crafts that had been carved from it.

He bored it in the middle, left two opposing parts connected below and above. One side of the part has a black, naked man curved in it, and he calls him Dumisani. On the other side there are engraves of a cheetah, an impala, and a baby elephant. Here is the story. He says one day, before he could even uproot the Munhacha tree, he dreamt of this story. Dumisani went hunting and he found and caught an impala which he took with him to the cave. He didn’t enter the cave though. He just hangs the impala on the tree behind the cave, without realizing that the cheetah was sleeping behind the tree. When he had rested a bit, he left his impala on this tree and went hunting for some more game in the forest. He caught a baby elephant which he took back with him to the cave, and he hangs the baby elephant beside the impala, still unaware of the cheetah. So the cheetah, baby elephant and impala adorn the other side of the piece, and Dumisani slouches on the other side, and between them is the cave. The cave is that hollow part dug off the middle of the Munhacha tree trunk.

DumisaniAs night drew closer there are two possibilities that Dumisani the hunter and the sleeping cheetah would have to grapple with. When the cheetah wakes up, it would be hungry, and finding two favorite meals hanging on the tree would be manna from heaven. But it would have to fight Dumisani to eat these. It may even eat Dumisani. If it succeeds it would have to enter the cave to sleep off the night. Dumisani would have to either be lucky he would get his quarry before the sleeping cheetah wakes up, and leave for home, or enter the cave with his bounty. If he decides to sleep the night off in this cave, it would create a battle line as they fight (Dumisani and the cheetah) each other for the right to use this place. Jonathon explained it up to that point and left it out for his followers to interpret or speculate on what will happen. He doesn’t even name his sculptures. Straight away, I knew I was dealing with an awesome storyteller. It’s not surprising, for I also come from the same language group and cultural structure. Nights in Shona childhood homes were always of eating great traditional meals, and storytelling. Jonathon continues this legend in his sculptures. He says his stories might appear like fables but they come from dreams. He says he has to dream first, and then tell the story, later.

With the other parts of this Munhacha tree he created some more sculptures. There is another piece of a lion that has caught an impala, and the lion is on top of the impala. Then a gun toting hunter comes on the scene, he shoots both the lion and impala. Another piece is of an eagle that has caught a snake and is flying off with it. Jonathon is interested in the fight between entities (animals versus animals or humans versus animals). There are very stark battle lines he draws between the opposing forces. I ask him, why? Where is the gun fascination coming from? He says from his military background. He says most of his sculptures nowadays are shaped from his experience in the military.

dumisani, impala, chetah, baby elephantThen I remembered the last time I came into contact with his pieces. In December 2006 he had a portfolio of work, stone sculptures. They were disturbing, ominous, and dark. They were an owl, eagle….and I think it was that owl that disturbed me. It looked menacing. It seemed to bore into me, and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t wait to get out of the room they were in. There were all sorts of other animals. It was a very strong collection. This latest portfolio, I find, is not as strong as that collection. Maybe his creating powers are waning. He is old, frail…and he has been ill.

Jonathon started sculpture in 1975, at Mariga’s place with the legendary sculptor Joram Mariga, Joram’s cousins, John and Bernard Takawira, and Bernard Manyandure. He left this Nyatate group as he joined the liberation war, fighting for the independence of his country, so that most of his sculptures have been done after he had retired from the army that fuels his fascination with war, strife, battle, and fighting. His sculptures are darkly fascinating and border on the limbo land when night meets day. He merges reality and dreams. The dreams come complete, but when he is sculpting, the day (reality), infuses into these sculptures.

Even in the serene sculptures; of a sleeping lion, an innocent impala, the wild pig, etc…, there is that dreamlike quality about them. In these sculptures he explores a world opposite to that of fighting, gun toting, battle, strife. I feel it’s a world he sometimes needs to enter. It is safe…and must represent that childhood home he grew up in, where things existed for themselves, mostly. He even says he learned craft from a young age when they would play at creating several different crafts in their younger playing days. I find the child in these serene crafts. It is his safety net, safety from the mad world of strife, fighting and gun toting. I ask him why he sculpts. He says sculpting opens up creativity more than any other form of art. Does he believe in environmentalism? He says he believes in it, only as long as people are still allowed to hunt for certain specific, important reasons; like for regulated consumption. Not for the sport of it.

He says pieces have been sold in the UK, US, South Africa. Some pieces are at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, in Harare. Some are at Nyanga Craft Centre in Nyanga town. He also shows me business cards of important persons and collectors who have visited him, including Stephen Loitz (USA), director of US marketing and Shona Gallery; Dr Davidson Gomo, Super Mandiwanzira (Zimbabwean broadcaster now vying for the Nyanga South constituency in the forthcoming elections). I am impressed.

lion on top of impalaOfficially Jonathon is 73 years old but he puts his age between 78-80 years. Back then, they would estimate their ages, for there was no proper registrations of births, most of which happened in people’s home, not in hospitals. They would use events like when the locust drifted from the north, or when there was draught, etc., to calculate the dates, so they were always rough estimates.

Jonathon works with both stone and wood, and he can work on both at the same time. He doesn’t have any preference between the two, only that when he dreams he is shown which to use as a vessel (stone or wood). His dreams are very clear, thus he doesn’t sculpt from reality’s base. He feels reality can easily be copied. He can only work outside of dreams when he is trying to sculpt things not from his world, like a dolphin, but he uses a picture, which is an extension of a dream to him.

He uses different types of stones. He doesn’t particularly like soapstone because it requires too much polishing. He doesn’t like polishing for it represents artificiality to him. He gets his stones from around Nyatate, Nyautare to the north, and Muchena, in the mountains to the north. On wood, he prefers Munhacha tree, Blackwood (Mukodzi tree). He prefers to use softwood because greenwood seeps and cracks. So does dry wood. He uses traditional tools to craft his pieces like the chisel, hammer, mbezo, and axe. He doesn’t use sculpting machines that the new generations of sculptors are using.

Does he have a new dream? Yes! A couple of weeks ago, he tells me, he dreamt of a non-African animal…he says it is the Australian kangaroo, eating a snake. He says he has been obsessing about this dream, and he would like to tell it, someday very soon.

imbabwean birdHe tells me he was born to be a sculptor, but the circumstances forced him to forego a lifetime career of it as he pursued a military career. Does he regret that considering that his contemporaries (Mariga, Takawiras, and Manyandure) became some of the most important sculptors to ever come out of Africa? He feels fulfilled with his work in the army, his family, and his work now as a sculptor. They joke with auntie Linah about this decision. Gamuchirai, my brother’s wife asks auntie, “’So, Auntie, I heard you were the one who refused uncle to pursue a sculptor’s career after the war”. “Yes, I did, daughter. I couldn’t let him leave me again. It was difficult looking after the kids when he was in Mozambique, fighting the war. I couldn’t allow him to leave me again.” And Jonathon agrees, “Yes, your auntie was afraid I would go to America, or Britain with this new career, so she said I should join the army, and stay home after the war, and I did that.”

He has no regrets. He is happy with his choices. He smiles as usual, a carefree smile. He feels complete. After finishing every dream piece, he says, he feels complete.

Jonathon doesn’t drink or smoke, likes vegetables and Sadza, dreams alone about battle lines between opposing entities in creating his darkly, complex, fascinating sculptures in the little village of Mapfurira. Yes, he is the only one left, for his contemporaries (Mariga, Takawiras, and Manyandure) are all gone. I ask him if he is reclusive. He says he is not. Why doesn’t he work with others at Nyanga Crafts Centre? He says he doesn’t like to work in groups.

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