ISSN 2042-9126 [Online]

Remembering Celia: the goddess of Zimbabwean stone sculptor

Munyaradzi Makoni

There is a mystic element attached to it. She read stone sculpture, gave it life and sermonized it worldwide. Her passion for sculpture spilled into bottomless pits, something surprising for someone whose upbringing at her father’s farm in Victoria, Australia had little to do with what she ended up doing. It’s even hard to imagine how someone who loved to swimming half a mile and tendering horses would deeply fall in love with priceless objects of God’s creation, stone art.

Celia Winter-Irving was a curator at the Zimbabwe National Arts Gallery. She was an internationally acclaimed author of stone sculpture and Zimbabwean art and culture. She published eleven books on development of the stone sculpture of Zimbabwe and penned numerous articles on the subject and went an extra mile as a teacher of painting.

How did it all happen?

Celia travelled a journey richly marinated with arts and cultures the whole of her life. Having run Irving Sculpture Gallery, as its director for six years with success in Sydney, when art in Australia art was something only taught at the art school, she knew about sculpture long before coming to Zimbabwe. Being a teacher at Sydney University, at the Power Institute of Fine Arts her romance with sculpture blossomed. She engineered seminars for scholars and art critics from the world over. While working at the university workshop as a sculptor using metal she scooped the Wyong Sculpture Prize.

“Sculpture was part of my life and I wrote about many sculptors and sculpture for leading art journals in Sydney. It was not hard to settle into it at all even though in Zimbabwe it was stone and informal art education rather than welded metal, post-modern stuff and formal art education,” she said.

Stone sculpture

Celia first came to Zimbabwe in 1985 as a result of two exhibitions of the stone sculpture of Zimbabwe co-hosted by her Irving Sculpture Gallery and Chapungu Sculpture Gallery to write a commissioned article for the British art journal, Studio International, on Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture. It’s almost natural to say she easily fitted in the Zimbabwean sculpture system. Rather, it was the same old song probably with a new tune, writing about sculpture and curating shows. With a touch of bush life from her home country she quickly found a new home in the middle of nowhere near the Great Dyke at Tengenenge Sculpture Community in Guruve district. There she found artists who are still close to their traditional practices and beliefs. These are not only from Zimbabwe but the Chewa from Malawi and Zambia, Yao from Malawi.

Huge success

When she accepted a position at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in 1987 as Research Fellow to the late Professor Cyril Rogers, director of the Gallery at the time, it also meant the birth of the idea of her first book Stone Sculpture of Zimbabwe: Context, Content and Form, which was later, published locally and internationally with huge success. With time the book has since become a standard text of reference on stone sculpture. “Tengenenge remains my home here and my understanding of Africa stems directly from my living at Tengenenge with African people from different cultures and religious persuasions and from my close relationship with Ton Blomefield over many years,” said Celia.

Blomefield is the founding director of Tengenenge Sculpture Community. They met when Blomefield came to Australia to open the second exhibition at Irving Gallery.

A portrait of an author

“I have written eleven books on the stone sculpture which have been published and succeeded well overseas sold in major galleries of stone sculpture, two on Tengenenenge (Dutch edition Roettie de Kan van Tengenenge Kit Publishers Royal Tropical Museum Amsterdam – reader in Dutch Schools teaching Dutch school children about African religion and Culture) and six on individual sculptors,” says Celia proudly.

Her tenth book Pieces of Time published by Mambo Press is an anthology of articles she wrote for The Herald and Zimbabwe Mirror has been published in a more elaborate version at the request of the distributor African Books Collective in United Kingdom because of high demand in the international market.

“Sootie the cat at Tengenenge remains my favourite book. I hope I have kept up in my books with changes, which have affected the sculpture over the years in Zimbabwe and indeed the global world. I feel now my books afford people a panoramic view of the development of stone sculpture in the last 15 years,” she said.

Footsteps of Wisdom

Her latest book, based on a Zimbabwean sculptor, Footsteps of Wisdom printed both in Germany and English is already out, thanks to a private commission from the Netherlands.

Born in Melbourne, Celia grew up on her father’s property Gundamian in Victoria, Australia with her mother. Her father bred racehorses and made a study of wild duck as an ornithologist working with Peter Scott, director of the Seven Wildfowl in UK. But, she feels knowing age is not important. “Age is not discussed I am now enjoying what I hope is maturity after a very eventful, crowded life.”

Best sellers

Celia’s father wrote three best sellers when he was 70 years old. One of the books Beyond the Bitchuman was a story of his life on the family properties in the North of Queensland and Victoria, no television, email, cell phone, computer or car, just horse and stokeman and space and cattle. These somehow shaped Celia’s mentality. She claims as the only child she took after her father since she started writing with ease at a very young age.

“I wrote for art journals, Australian newspapers on social issues, writing never worried me. One must groom one’s imagination as one brushes one’s hair each day to make it shine. When I was a young girl we did not think of life in terms of career  as that came to me much later in Zimbabwe. The social expectation was marriage but I had various jobs involving writing and I guess unconsciously the ability to write determined my career choices and professionally I chose to take it up.”

Despite being full of vigour and zeal, she dismissed any talk about what inspired her writing. She said each book is something of its own. “Writing is a bit craft, a lot of practice and a lot more an inborn ability to write. If I had not written my first book and it had not been such a huge success I might not have embarked on the subsequent books. I love sculpture and what goes on inside the stones and generally the beauty of much of the work.”

Achievements

With eleven books under her belt she firmly believed she made stone sculpture more meaningful to a lot of people inside and outside Zimbabwe and helped sell a lot of sculpture. She lectured on Shona stone sculpture in Bologna, Sydney, Oslo and in Zimbabwe. Celia represented Tengenenge at exhibitions in Bologna and Gabrovo, Bulgaria and Madeira, Portugal. With an icing of writing a lot of catalogue essays for huge exhibitions of Zimbabwean stone sculpture world wide and supervising many theses of students working on the stone sculpture at local and international universities, this was no mean achievement.

As a professional painter who specialised in abstract art she had one solo show at Sandros Gallery in Harare.

“I feel my books are very useful and meaningful in their engagement with school and tertiary course in art in Zimbabwe to teach students about stone sculpture that the sculptures are not just beautiful objects but teaching aids to Zimbabwean culture and spiritual history.”

Unique

Zimbabwean stone sculpture commands a lot of respect world over simply because its not only rooted in the spiritual traditions of Zimbabwe but it changes its context according to what happens and takes place in the country and the rest of the world.

“It’s not stuck in a period of history or spiritual history it is accessible to people the world over because of the nature of the messages. It’s not part of built environments like other traditions of sculpture it stands on its own and it has provided a means for living and an interesting way of life for otherwise ordinary Zimbabweans,” said Celia.

Personal glimpses

Millions of kilometres away from close relatives dear to her heart Celia said, writing introduced her to new people and enabled her to make new friends and do new things like spoken poetry, which she occasionally performed with other poets in Harare. Her poetry mainly centred on her book Soottie the Cat at Tengenenge.

“I love cats and dogs, my family always put their animals before them. I have had two cats Joseph and Soottie. I collect Illustrated cat books I keep in my office which are a joy to my visitors at the gallery” And for a cat lover, who could have denied her the opportunity to indulge?

Opera

She taught courses in opera, Mozart Verdi Puccini Donizetti Bellini Rossini in Sydney.

While passionate about sculpture in European Cathedrals from Renaissance to Baroque and Bernini in particular she fears birds and heights. She was also a fashion enthusiast who loved to keep thin and looking elegant as humanly as possible. Her heart opened up greatly when she worked with students on stone sculpture. But one had to hear her talk with respect on her association with the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe in developing the annual National Merit Awards for artists in the country. She was jurist on these awards on three occasions.

“I value spending time with my adopted cat Whiskers and as much time as I can with Blomefield, when he is free, expanding my interests. I just love Tengenenge.”

Baptised and confirmed into the Anglican Church she remained an Anglican but not of any definite formal nature but oozing with confidence she said: “I am very interested in religion and art to do with religion and the role of religion in people’s lives. I would be an excellent Christian if I took the jump to believe in God and make Christ centre of my life.”