Birdwoods at Burtown Exhibition

Burtown House continues its connection with art of all kinds with an exhibition of 50 pieces of stunning Zimbabwean stone sculpture. On display from 8th September throughout the wonderful gardens of this 300-year old country house in County Kildare, the ‘Birdwoods at Burtown’ exhibition connects New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Ireland – through family association, a multigenerational inheritance of creativity, and a shared entrepreneurial spirit.

Giraffe Sculptures at Birdwood exhibition

An early Georgian villa built for the Quaker Robert Power in 1710, and passed down the female line through a number of Quaker families to the Fennell family, three generations of Fennells still live at Burtown today and we are as dedicated as ever to our family pursuit of creating beauty.

The New Zealand and Zimbabwean connection comes through our Fennell cousins, Bruce and Louise Stobart. Third-generation Zimbabweans, originally farming a highly successful 2,000-acre commercial farm north of Harare, Bruce and Louise were forced to leave Zimbabwe in 2003 when they were evicted from their farm without compensation.

Bruce and Louise moved to Hawke’s Bay New Zealand in 2004 with their three young children, where they established Birdwoods in Havelock North – a gallery, sculpture garden, café and old-fashioned sweet shop that has now become the region’s most popular visitor attraction, with over 50,000 visitors a year. Bruce and Louise are Australasia’s largest importers of Zimbabwean sculpture and they have a year-round display of stone and metal sculpture on view in the gallery and extensive gardens at Birdwoods.

Joanna and I loved the idea of extending this connection to our home in County Kildare and giving our many Burtown visitors the opportunity to experience these unique artworks as well.

We hope you enjoy the exhibition.

Best wishes, James and Joanna

Background to Bruce and Louise Stobart

Both from third-generation Zimbabwean families, as a newly-married couple, Bruce and Louise Stobart bought 2,000 acres of land in the Mazowe District about an hour’s drive from Harare, Zimbabwe. The land they purchased in 1993 in Mazowe was completely undeveloped and its only ‘improvement’ was a run-down hunting lodge which was to become their home.

In the 10 years they owned the farm, Bruce and Louise created a highly successful commercial farming operation that produced over 2,000 tonnes of food crops each year for both local and export markets and which employed and supported 60 families. Key crops were maize, soya beans, wheat, paprika and cattle.

In 1991, with Bruce focused on installing large-scale centre pivot irrigation systems and spending a lot of time with his new combine harvester, Louise decided to embark on a new creative business venture and she established a ‘companion enterprise’ to their farm – Birdwoods Metal Sculpture. Using her designs, unique metal sculptures were made from recycled 40 gallon oil drums and, as the Birdwoods business grew, it provided employment for an additional 30 families. All these families were part of a farm village where primary health care and community facilities were provided by the Stobarts.

In July 2003 Bruce, Louise and their three children were violently evicted from their farm by a government-sponsored gang without compensation. Under Robert Mugabe’s draconian land redistribution program, their farm was ‘allocated’ to the lead singer of Mugabe’s choir and it has since produced no crops and lies derelict. While Bruce and Louise compensated their workers well, 15 years on from their eviction many of their farm labourers remain jobless. Fortunately, the Birdwoods metal craftsmen and their families were relocated to Harare where Birdwoods continues to produce Louise’s designs in limited numbers.

Bruce and Louise left Zimbabwe in 2003 to start a new life with their young family in New Zealand. Having settled in Hawke’s Bay on the North Island of New Zealand, they opened Birdwoods Gallery in 2005. Birdwoods provides visitors with a unique experience, and includes a gallery housed in an old church hall, an extensive sculpture garden and an old fashioned sweet shop in a colonial cottage next door to the Gallery. Birdwoods has offered Bruce and Louise the opportunity to showcase New Zealand’s great creativity as well as maintain an ongoing connection with their African heritage.

Selecting and Purchasing The Stone Sculptures

Since starting their new life in New Zealand in 2004, Bruce and Louise have travelled back to Zimbabwe each year to select and purchase sculpture, textiles and a wide range of functional and decorative arts for their gallery in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.

They have particularly enjoyed the relationships they’ve developed with the stone sculptors and have gained an increasing understanding of, and appreciation for, this unique art form and the artists themselves.

Life for Zimbabweans remains uncertain and difficult, and particularly so for the artists who battle to make a living from their work given the disintegration of Zimbabwe’s economy and infrastructure and the consequent collapse of tourism, as well as the huge drop-off in international buyers which has been amplified by the world economic downturn.

All in all, pursuing a life as an artist in Zimbabwe makes for a very tenuous existence and it always moves and humbles Bruce and Louise to see how committed and tenacious so many of the sculptors are in the face of such difficulties.

It is very important to the Stobarts that they deal with all the sculptors personally – that they have the opportunity to discuss their work and lives with each sculptor, and to negotiate with them and pay them directly. Each year they would view thousands of sculptures, only to select perhaps 100 pieces. Bruce and Louise strive to find sculptures that have integrity and express the unique artistic viewpoint of each sculptor and are committed to trading fairly and respectfully with the artists.

Overview of Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture

Zimbabwe is now the stone carving capital of the world and their sculpture has become the singular most collected form of African art internationally. Zimbabwean stone sculpture, despite the country’s political and social and instability, remains a truly contemporary art force. With each piece hand carved using only a hammer, chisel, file, water and sandpaper, the Shona’s beautiful stone sculpture is powerfully human and imbued with intense spirituality.

The History Of Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture

African stone sculpture from Zimbabwe is often called Shona sculpture, named after the largest tribe engaged in sculpting. The Shona are the oldest tribe in Zimbabwe and are believed to be the legendary guardians of King Solomon’s mines.

‘Zimbabwe’, derived from the Shona word ‘dzimbadzamabwe’ which means ‘house of stone’, is the only country on the African continent that has large deposits of stone suitable for sculpting.

In ancient times stone was used extensively for building and for decorative purposes. The Great Zimbabwe settlement, now a World Heritage Site, is testimony to the skill and artistry of the ancestors of today’s sculptors. Built between the 11th and 15th centuries, at a time when Europe was just emerging from the Dark Ages, these accomplished stonemasons used hand-hewn granite blocks to painstakingly and precisely build ornate towers and enclosures – all free of mortar.

Centuries later, in the late 1950s, Frank McEwen, the founding curator of the National Gallery of what was then Southern Rhodesia, recognizing the Shona peoples’ affinity with stone, established a sculpture workshop at the Gallery and invited the participation of aspiring artists. There was no attempt to instruct – those who were interested were simply given the tools and the stone. As McEwen described it, their work revealed “the images they bore in their souls”. No technical training was given – the sculptors learned from one another and taught one another. This mentoring tradition continues today with aspiring artists learning by watching the masters, by observing the stone, and finally by picking up the tools.

In the words of Bernard Matemera, one of the founders of this movement: “The spirits are everywhere in the air, in the rocks. A rock is like a fruit – like an orange or a banana. You don’t eat them without peeling them first. It needs to be opened to be eaten. I open the rocks. The fruit is inside.”

Artists draw extensively for inspiration on traditional culture: the mythology, folklore, rituals and beliefs in ancestral spirits that remain strong strands even in contemporary, urban Zimbabwean life. Women are also a significant source of inspiration: the nude torso, the dancing girl, mother and child are depicted in a myriad of ways. The natural world and man’s relationship with nature is another important theme, which reflects the country’s deep rural roots. In the late 1960s the world recognized that a new art movement had been born in Africa and leading international collectors started buying Shona sculptures. The works first became popular in the UK, Holland and Germany and more recently across Europe and America. Shona sculptures are in the permanent collections of the Rodin Museum (Paris), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Museum of Mankind (London), National Gallery of Zimbabwe (Harare), Museum of Modern Art (Frankfurt), and the Kresge Museum (Michigan).

Around 600 of the 8+ million Shona are sculpting today and Zimbabwe is now the stone carving capital of the world. This art movement has also attracted sculptors from surrounding African counties – Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia – so while the Shona people are still predominant, other cultural influences have enriched the creation of the sculptures that bear their name. Traditionally, most of the Shona artists have been men. However, more recently, many women have started carving and have received national and international recognition.

Carving & Polishing Techniques

Unlike formally trained Western artists, Zimbabwean carvers are primarily self-taught and they do not plan or pre-draw their sculptures but are inspired by the stone itself. After quarrying the raw stone with pickaxe and pry bar, carvers use simple, handmade tools to release the spirits held within the multi-coloured stone. Sculptors often say the spirits of their ancestors come to them in their dreams and reveal the spirit that dwells within the rock.
Generally living and working in specific sculpture communities, Zimbabwean sculptors carve entirely by hand and work outdoors. Many artists show an ingenious ability to make tools from scrap metal to form their carving equipment. While urban carvers now use chisels, punches and chasing hammers, even these simple tools are expensive and difficult to find, so many carve with hand-made tools from recycled scrap and often use carpentry nails for chisels.

Carving techniques are not necessarily passed on from generation to generation. While many carvers are related to each other, the only prerequisite for learning seems to be desire and time. The skills are not hoarded, but openly shared with anyone wanting to learn.

To transform rough surfaces, artists will hand-sand with wet sandpaper or use river sand on a rag. Traditionally carvers have used plant or vegetable oils to polish their works. More recent techniques include ‘firing the stone’ by heating the completed sculpture by a charcoal brazier and applying layers of hot wax, usually carnauba plant or beeswax.

The Stone

The Great Dyke, a 310-mile ridge of 2.5 billion-year-old hills laced with chrome, platinum, gold, copper, emeralds and other precious metals, forms the backbone of Zimbabwe. The longest linear mass of volcanic rock in the world and once believed to be the repository of the wealth of legendary Ophir, the dyke never yielded the dreamed-of mountains of gold. However, carving stone is plentiful. From scintillating white granites to brilliant serpentines – reds, greens, maroons, greys, yellows, and vibrant oranges – the stone is a visual catalogue of incredible mineral wealth. More than 225 specific colours and combinations of serpentine have been identified in Zimbabwe. It is the complex combination of these minerals that create the stunning colour palette so unique to Zimbabwean carving stone.

Following are some details on the various stones used by carvers. Note that the hardness refers to the Mohs scale of mineral hardness where a diamond is rated as 10.0.

Cobalt — A beautiful stone often purple in coloration with a variation of yellow, white and brown markings and strips throughout. Cobalt is a brittle, relatively rare hard metal, closely resembling iron and nickel in appearance. It has a hardness of between 5 and 6 on Mohs scale.

Leopard Stone — A beautifully coloured stone with yellow and black spock marks similar to a leopard, hence the name. These are inclusions of the ferromagnesian mineral, olivine. Leopard Rock is an olivine rich serpentine (known geologically as dunite) which forms part of a serpentine complex 2.6 billion years old.

Opalstone — A beautiful serpentine, opalstone is a very hard, finely textured stone with an almost translucent surface sometimes specked with red, orange and bluish dots and patches. Opalstone is famous for its milky light coloured greens and smooth texture. It is also unique in that it has fewer colour variations than serpentine. Mined at Chiweshe, two hours north of Harare, Opalstone is one of the favourites of sculptors, as it’s not as hard as Springstone and other Serpentines, but still polishes to a high finish. On the Mohs hardness scale, Opalstone ranges between 5.0-5.5.

Serpentine — Found in many deposits throughout Zimbabwe, serpentine colours vary from black to brown to green, orange and variegated. Its hardness level varies from very soft to very hard. Measured on the Mohs scale where a diamond is 10.0, Serpentine ranges from 1.2 up to 6.54. The majority of the sculptors do not carve from soft Serpentine, but rather select deposits of rock that are hard and therefore more durable.

Springstone — Prized by sculptures, Springstone is an extremely hard Serpentine with high iron content and a fine texture with no cleavages, and offering a good resistance to the sculptor. Springstone has a rich outer ‘blanket’ of reddish brown oxidised rock. They emerge from the quarry like sculptures created by nature millions of years ago and are often a source of inspiration to the artist. There are a few mines where this stone is found, but Guruve in the north, is generally where Springstone in mined. A beautifully dark stone, it polishes to a high shine because of its density.

Caring for Zimbabwean Stone Sculpture

Some stone surfaces can scratch very easily so it is important to unpack and handle the stone sculptures with great care. As a three dimensional art form, sculpture commands and requires space and excellent lighting. As some of the artworks are carved with slim bases, careful and secure mounting is important.

For sculptures with smooth polished surfaces (as opposed to rough/raw stone surfaces), we recommend polishing with a pure wax or oil and a soft cloth. Polish the stone once every six months if it is kept indoors. If kept outside, polish it at least once a month, possibly more if you are in a hot, sunny climate. Do not use any wax or oil that contains additives as they can harm the stone’s surface. Do not apply polish to the rough or raw stone surfaces of your sculpture. Should you accidentally apply polish to these areas, gently rub with fine sandpaper.

## The Sculpture Communities

The majority of Zimbabwean sculptors work and live in sculpture communities. These provide them with access to shared facilities and tools, to a collective approach to the purchase of stone and to transport, and, importantly, to mentoring, training and inspiration from other artists.

For buyers, the sculpture communities provide centralised locations for viewing a wide range of work. Each sculptor maintains their own outdoor area or garden in which they display their work and they either pay a monthly rental or a small percentage of their sales to the community body. The key sources for Birdwoods’ selections are Chitungwize Sculpture Community just outside Harare, Tsindi Sculpture Group in Harare, and Tengenenge Sculpture Community which is about a three hour drive from Harare.

Each year Birdwoods donates equipment for the sculptors and supports their communal activities.

Chitungwiza Arts Centre

Formed in 1978 from three townships and located 30 kilometres south of Harare, Chitungwiza is the third largest city in Zimbabwe with an estimated population of 1 million. During the 1980s and 1990s numerous Shona sculptors created and displayed their art individually at their own sites around the township.

To address the need for a centralised and supportive base for sculptors, the Chitungwiza Arts Center was established in 1997 through funding from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Ministry of Education Sports and Culture, with land donated by the Chitungwiza Council. The Arts Centre is run by a management committee of sculptor members and income for the Centre is derived from a 10% commission levied on all sales. This is used to develop and maintain infrastructure, for the purchase of raw stone, and for training and mentoring of young sculptors. The Centre also has a number of initiatives to support HIV/AIDS campaigns and families of sculptors affected by the disease.

More than 100 sculptors (both men and women) are active members and Chitungwiza Arts Centre is now home to many of Zimbabwe’s leading sculptors.

Tengengenge Sculpture Community

Located 150kms from Harare on the road to Guruve, Tengenenge Sculpture Community has an important place in the history of stone sculpture from Zimbabwe and is the home of many successful artists. The sculpture, unique to this community, is almost always present at major international exhibitions and has become famous in its own right.

Tengenenge, which means ‘the beginning of the beginning’ was founded by Tom Blomefield in l966. This sculpture community is internationally recognised as a place where people of different African cultural and spiritual origins live and work together in an atmosphere of conciliation and harmony. The establishment and ongoing success of Tengenenge has played a central role in the overall development of the Guruve District, offering people a creative and financially and socially stable way of life through making stone sculpture.

Over 300 sculptors live and work at Tengenenge and there are around 11,000 works on display. Tengenenge is a typical African village with the key difference being that everyone makes their living from sculpting. There are around 100 families living at Tengenenge and some of them include third generation artists. Sculptors live at Tengenenge for free and are provided with all the quarried stone. On the sale of a sculpture, they pay 35% commission to Tengenenge for mining and other general expenses.

Birdwoods Metal Sculpture

While still farming in Zimbabwe, in 1991 Louise Stobart established a new enterprise – Birdwoods Metal Sculpture – a small business that grew to become one of Zimbabwe’s most enduring creative entities. Louise was an early pioneer of the recycled art movement, turning 40 gallon drums into beautiful metal sculptures. Within four years, Birdwoods Metal Sculpture employed 12 welders plus another 24 assistants (supporting 30 families on the farm) and had developed significant export markets across the US, Europe and Great Britain.

In the 26 years since she designed and welded her first prototype, Louise’s sculptures have gained an international reputation, with notable exhibitions including the Chelsea Flower Show in London and Keukenhof Tulip Gardens in Amsterdam.  In 2004, Louise’s bird sculptures were used in the Spring Collection windows of every Louis Vuitton shop around the world in celebration of 150 years of LVM.

When they left Zimbabwe, Bruce and Louise sold the business to a friend, Joy Denton, and the welders and workshops were relocated to Harare where the business continues successfully, using Louise’s original designs.

Care and Maintenance

All Birdwoods Metal Sculptures are made from recycled 44 gallon steel drums giving each piece its own unique patina and surface texture. The sculptures are finished with two coats of marine grade varnish and one coat of a rust inhibitor.

However, over time (and particularly if the sculpture is kept outdoors), the finish will dull and some rust may form. If you want to significantly slow this natural weathering process, we recommend the regular use of Owatrol Polytrol* to protect and re-finish your Birdwoods metal sculpture. If you do not have access to this product, regularly spray with a clear varnish (aerosol cans are available at hardware stores). An alternative approach to controlling the weathering process is to use an oil polish – either regularly applied with a soft cloth (we use a linseed rich natural wood oil), or sprayed on (using WD40).

For further information, please visit the Birdwoods Gallery website:

* Available from Igoe International –