Shona Sculpture and Shona Culture: the Water Spirit


(Ph.D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Bernard Matemeta
Serpentine. About 5ft
© Jonathan Zilberg


This brief article is about the representation of the njuzu water spirit in Shona sculpture. These two examples are exemplary of the way in which Zimbabwean stone sculptors have drawn upon their cultural backgrounds to create works which are both meaningful to themselves and fascinating to the European patrons. The explanations serve to demonstrate that though Zimbabwean stone sculpture is much more than simply a Shona tradition, having a complex and multi-ethnic history, certain artists have effectively and self-consciously articulated their customs and beliefs through their works.

Albert Manuuta
" Pregnant Cyclopse "
Serpentine, ca 4ft
© Jonathan Zilberg



Sometimes Shona stone sculptors in Zimbabwe explain Shona culture to visitors in more expansive ways than is usually the case. In my encounter with Shona sculpture, during my doctoral fieldwork in 1988 and from 1990-1992, I found this to be especially the case with two of the more famous artists discussing the njuzu or water spirit (variously termed as njuzu or nzuzu and sometimes zuzu). On most occasions when I discussed this subject with artists, particularly the lesser known craftsmen selling on the streets, they had little to say except that the njuzu was a Shona mermaid. Despite its popularity as a topic for discussion it was relatively rarely executed because I think there were few models to go on, besides the standard image of the mermaid we all share, and besides no sculptor has ever claimed to have seen one. The sculptors usually simply imagine the being as appearing in the guise of a beautiful women who lives beneath the water.

One day on Radio Three in 1991, I heard an interview by Fiona Lloyd who was talking with the sculptor Agnes Nyanhongo about her work and its basis in Shona culture. One of the forms they discussed was a sculpture of a njuzu. Though Agnes Nyanghongo's knowledge was typically abbreviated in that interview what made that radio show particularly compelling was that Lloyd, the producer of the show, chose to intersperse the discussion with the then recent song Njuzu by the extraordinary Shona female vocalist and "Queen" of the mbira -- Stella Chiweshe. Though the existence of the water spirit is general knowledge amongst the Shona speaking peoples, I found that few if any of the sculptors could sing the songs one was supposed to sing by the river to the water spirit if a relative of yours had gone missing there. Yet many of them knew that if you did not go down to the river and kneel and clap your hands in respect while singing a praise song, but wept instead, your loved one would never be returned.

After hearing Chiweshe's evocative folk song about the water spirit, with her haunting melodic voice and the acoustic richness of her electrified mbira (hand held lamelophone (see Berliner 1978, Impey 1998, Turino 2000), Nyanhongo commented she had never heard the song before, as was the case with most artists I had met, nor that she would know how to sing to the njuzu to treat its captive well and eventually return him or her to our terrestrial world. This was important as it revealed how the second and third generation of Shona sculptors are to some degree removed from tradition. Nevertheless, almost all the sculptors, if pressed, could give a relatively adequate account of the following descriptions as given by two of the leading early sculptors, Joseph Ndandarika and John Takawira, both now deceased.


Joseph Ndandarika, John Takawira and the Njuzu

Joseph Ndandarika
" The Thinker "
Purple lapidulite, ca 3-4 ft
© Jonathan Zilberg

Artists such as John Takawira, Nicholas Mukomberanwa and Joseph Ndandarika, first generation Shona sculptors associated with Frank McEwen's Workshop School at the Rhodes National Gallery in the 1960's, have skilfully executed these sometimes highly original and powerful forms as have later artists namely the late Brighton Sango, and the three artistic siblings Agnes, Gideon and Claude Nyanhongho. One cold clear winter day in 1988, Joseph Ndandarika related the following description about one such a sculpture in a videotape of a somewhat inebriated performance in the sculpture garden at Vukutu gallery (now Vhukutiwa) in Harare. Caressing the shiny black sculpture he said this :

" This is a water spirit. The water spirit, it stays under the water. If you have got the spirit of a n'anga [healer, also (ngangha)] it can take you straight under the water and you can spend six months or even more. It gives you food, fresh food, uncooked things, some other insects from under the water. So you must accept that food. After six months, it will give you some medicine and teach you how to cure people when you're out of the water and then when you come out from the water you'll be a great n'anga which is called nzuzu. That's the meaning of this nzuzu, swimming in the water, it's already going to attack a person to take him under the water--that is nzuzu . "

Nevertheless, as I have accentuated above, most artists' own descriptions of such works are highly attenuated versions of well known belief. For often, often-times they simply explain that the njuzu is what Europeans would understand to be a mermaid, though sometimes they will provide elaborate explanations such as this case demonstrates.

There is an expanding literature describing the widespread cults of the mermaid, jemanja, madre agua, sirene a, themammy wata spirit in West Africa or the mamba muntu in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has become an important genre in popular painting (see Fabian 1997:20-21, 1998:50). The important difference between the Zimbabwean case and the Zairean case is that in the former case either sex may be abducted and trained to become a diviner/healer thus achieving a certain status and security whereas in the latter case, always a male, one becomes fabulously rich. In the D.C.R. (Zaire), if you are fortunate enough not to be drowned but merely surprise this beauty upon the shore, she will give you a gift and visit you in dreams at night, and of-course to enter into this relationship and become instantly wealthy you must become a sexually abstinent devotee.

The njuzu belief is central to the practice and mythology of spirit mediumship and thus close to the heart of Shona religion (see Aschwanden 1982, 1989, Bourdillion 1976, Fry 1976, Lan 1985). As a result people's knowledge of the njuzu is very much axiomatic though the explanations one encounters are dependent on the person's personal knowledge, the context and the moment. For example, the following description of the njuzu given by the late John Takawira was to my surprise taken far further than I had ever heard in the field and in greater depth than in most anthropological accounts in the literature. In this case Takawira provided an elaborate description of this theme to Dr. Anita Jacobson-Widding, a European anthropologist specializing on Shona religion and society (see Jacobson Widding 1993).

In this account, which surpasses all current accounts in the ethnographic literature, except for the scattered and remarkable analysis of Karanga mythology by Herbert Aschwanden (1982, 1989),Takawira revealed himself as the immensely articulate and creative person he was. This is a particularly striking case of the type of inter-cultural communication through the arts which is the hallmark of the Shona sculpture discourse. Perhaps there was also an element of respect involved which might explain the ethnographic gift this account consists -- for though Jacobson-Widding noted that they had never met before, I imagine that John Takawira knew exactly who she was and where her interest lie in that she had by then been working in the Eastern region of Zimbabwe for many years and local knowledge of anthropologists, historians, missionaries and other sympathetic souls can proceed one. If not, then either he was in an expansive mood that day or he felt a natural kinship with her when she expressed interest in this particular sculpture and the theme of the njuzu.

" In some pools there is a very, very beautiful woman. She is called njuzu. This woman can be very dangerous. If there is somebody whom she likes, she will entice him to get close to her pool. And once you get there, she will drag you down into the water.

She will then keep you at the bottom of the pool. At first, you believe that she will be nice to you, because she is so beautiful. But once you get down there, she will become very harsh and strict. She will force you to obey her orders, and to eat the kind of food she offers. The food she gives is black mud, worms and raw fish. If you refuse to eat that food, she will never let you get up from the pool again.

But if you accept her food politely, and if you obey her strict orders, she will change once more. After you have endured her harsh treatment for a couple of weeks, she will become kind. She will now offer you the most wonderful delicacies, such as rice, and sweet things. Then she will give you a basket with medicines (mushonga = magic 'medicines'), and let you leave the pool.

You will find yourself lying on a reed mat on the surface of the water. From there you will be able to reach the shore, and walk away with your basket. Thanks to the gift in that basket, you will now be able to start a new life and become successful and famous. You can become a n'anga (healer, diviner), or some other kind of artist, and lead a good life (in Jacobson-Widding 1993:5, paragraph breaks mine). "

Again, such a very lengthy explanation though not unusual in terms of content being common knowledge to ethnographers and many Shona people, it is extreme, and most uncommon in terms of explication given by sculptors. It is a classic case of how in certain contexts the artists are becoming more and more expansive about the Shona symbolism behind their work -- the most expansive of all being Nicholas Mukomberanwa and the late Bernard Takawira (see Guthrie 1988, 1999, Zilberg 1996:176-185).

Conclusion: On the Significance of the Njuzu story to the Shona Sculpture Phenomenon

The expansive accounts of the njuzu given above may well be due to the post-independence intensification of commitment to the concept of Shona sculpture in which it is assumed that each Shona sculpture comes with a story and the better and more extensive the cultural account the more interesting and therefore "authentic" the sculpture. It is interesting in that though the discourse in this art world describes these works as spirits in stone this is mere discourse for tourist consumption as no Shona person in their right mind would imagine or try to create (or capture) a spirit in stone -- though they might say so for theatrical purposes to European patrons. It would be anathema to Shona religion for spirits are conceived of as forces like the wind that possess people and that do not inhabit inanimate objects. Consequently this is one particularly clear case of how the Shona discourse of spirit in stone is ethnographic fantasy that speaks more to Western perceptions of Africa and African perceptions of Western perceptions than to the spiritual reality of the discourse as immanent in the sculptures (see Price 1989). Yet such discourses are not simply authenticating mechanisms for they serve, as we see here, as a vital inter-cultural mode of exchange and for re-telling and transmitting African religious beliefs to a European audience as well as for re-affirming forms of local identity (see Myers 1998 for the Australian Pintupi case).

The only case I ever heard of in which any remote superstitious possibility was connected lay in the case in which the elder statesman of Shona sculpture Nicholas Mukomberanwa once sculpted an entirely original conceptualization of a water spirit with a swirling encircling force and central almost demonic eye. Subsequently, and one imagines by pure chance and not attributable to some superstitious reasoning of representation and effect, his son tragically drowned in a river. He did not sculpt another water spirit for a very long time and by 1988/89 when he did, the evolution in his style into a highly aestheticized and refined mode had become very much apparent (see Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition 1990:101). To extrapolate mystical significance to the drowning, as one might be drawn to do from a "primitivist" perspective, would be a mystification akin to the original claims that the Shona sculptors poured blood over the sculptures to bring the incarnated spirits of their ancestral Gods alive (see Zilberg 1994). Though such works then provide us access into the artists' experience and cultural beliefs, they are never seen as living spirits in stones in the artists' eyes though European patrons love to see them as such. That the artists' are aware of this and amused by it is given way and lives on in the amused glint in Joseph Ndandarika's eyes during his slightly inebriated description of the njuzu given above.

While Shona sculpture has served, as we see for the case of the njuzu , to convey African religious beliefs to European audiences, the choice of subject is not entirely unmotivated. These choices not only reveal a pride in their own cultural heritage but also reveal a communicative system in which the artists are producing symbolic imagery with the European fascination for the magic and spirituality they perceive as inherent to "authentic" "tribal" African art. Thus while such discourses serve to legitimate the claims of Shona sculpture as having an authenticity based in ethnicity they also speak to the European imagination of Africa as an exotic other with "primitivist" organic connections to nature and the spirit world revealed in their art (see Cousins 1990, Torgovnik 1990). Shona sculpture then, as a vehicle for Shona culture, serves a dual discursive purpose.

Yet over and above these considerations, this form of inter-cultural communication through the arts speaks directly to a historical relation between Europe and Africa in which contemporary African artists are imagined to be bound to religion and ethnicity, to nature and the spirit world, in a different way to modern European artists. Indeed, for avant-garde Zimbabwean sculptors attempting to break into the world of international contemporary art, and set themselves apart from the mainstream, these tropes of ethnicity present a double bind and arguably hinders their ability to gain acceptance in Europe as modern artists in their own rights. Yet Frank McEwen, the first director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, the inspirational figure who first encouraged the sculptors to mine their culture and express their belief systems in stone, believed that it was this connection between art and religion which propelled Shona sculpture into the world of "great" art and which in fact made it relevant as an anti-dote to European formalism (see Polakoff 1972).

True to McEwen's memory, at home in Africa, following the lead of the likes of Joseph Ndandarika and Nicholas Mukomberanwa, many Shona artists now commonly comment that their sculptures will serve to transmit their beliefs to upcoming generations who they fear are loosing touch with Shona culture. But considering the dynamics of the market and appreciation at hand, that future lies in Europe where it is the children of the patrons who will be the ones to learn about the njuzu through these sculptures. Back at home in Africa the ancestral faith continues unaided by ideas expressed in stone but by spirit possession and ritual. There it is the sounds of the mbira, and not the shape of a stone, that call the spirits forth.



Aschwanden, H.
1989 Karanga Mythology. Gweru: Mambo Press.
1982 Symbols of Life. Gweru: Mambo Press.

Berliner, P.
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Bourdillion, M.
1976 The Shona Peoples. An Ethnography of the Contemporary Shona, with Special Reference to Their Religion. Gweru: Mambo Press. Cousins, J.
1991 "The Making of Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture." Third Text 1(3):31-42.

Fabian, J.
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Fry, P.
1976 Spirits of Protest: Spirit-mediums and the Articulation of Consense among the Zezuru of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guthrie, R.
1988 Prominent Sculptors of Zimbabwe: Bernard Takawira. Msasa: The Gallery Shona Sculpture.
1989 Prominent Sculptors of Zimbabwe: Nicholas Mukomberanwa. Msasa: The Gallery Shona Sculpture.

Impey, A.
1998 "Popular Music in Africa," in Ruth Stone (ed.), Africa, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. New York: Garland Publishing.

Jacobson-Widding, A.
1993 "Individual Identity in African Story Telling." Nordic Journal of African Studies 2(1):5-33.

Lan, D.
1985 Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe. London: James Currey.

Myers, F.
1989 "Truth, Beauty, and Pintupi Painting." Visual Anthropology 2:163-195.

Price, S.
1989 Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Studio Museum in Harlem
1990 Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition. Harlem: The Studio Museum.

Turino, T.
2000 Nationalists, Cosmpolitans and Popular Music in Zimbabwe. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Zilberg, J.
1994 Inscriptions and Fantasies in the Invention of Shona Sculpture. Passages. A Chronicle of the Humanities: 7:13,16.
1996 Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture: The Invention of a Shona Tradition. Doctoral Thesis. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ann Arbor: U.M.I. Press.


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