Shona artists and crafts people have been working in different media for generations. These include paintings, pottery, basket ware, wood carvings, and sculpture done in metal as well as the stone carvings. While there is not a long standing tradition of sculpture in what is now Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia), stone carvings dating from the 15th century were seen in Great Zimbabwe, an excavated temple near Bulawayo. Most of the artifacts from this location have been moved to museums in Cape Town, South Africa or London.
It is generally agreed that Zimbabwean stone sculpture as seen today began during the late colonial period of the 1950's and 1960's. During this period the artists and artisans depicted many of the traditional Shona and other tribal spiritual myths.
Out of all the nations in Africa, the large varieties and abundant supplies of rock formations present throughout the Zimbabwe landscape provide artists with a medium for sculpture and carvings unique to their country. The Shona art sculpture of Zimbabwe combines the wonderful varieties presented by the stone with images drawn both from reality and abstract symbolism.
Much of the stone used by Shona artists is quarried in areas which are adjacent or quite near the villages where the work is created. Often the land on which the stone is found is owned by the village or the local artists. The artists use stone such as Serpentine (somewhat old, having been formed about 2.6 billion years ago), with more than 200 color variations. The hardest and darkest of the Serpentine varieties is black, commonly known as Springstone or Africa stone. Less seen is Lepidolite, with its beautiful pale mauve coloration; and the very hard Verdite, found mostly in darker shades of green but with other variations as well.
Commonly referred to as Rapoko stone in Zimbabwe, Steatite is a natural soft stone that falls under the general category of soapstone. Rapoko is found on every continent in the world with the possible exception of Antarctica. Its remarkable qualities have made this stone one of the most widely used minerals on earth. Over 10 million years old, Rapoko is a natural mineral, prized since ancient times for its durability, workability, beautiful character and ability to retain and radiate heat and resist chemicals. Native cultures, the world over, have carved Rapoko/Steatite into vessels, art objects, memorial and cultural items. Carved items have been found in the tombs of Pharaohs, in the igloos
of the far north, in temples and palaces of China and India, in the mountains and river valleys of the Americas and the arid plains of Africa. There is a man made ceramic product, also called Steatite, which uses the natural Rapoko stone as one of its raw materials but has no other
connection to the skillful efforts of talented Shona and other African artists.
The wonderful natural character of stone is used both in its rough cut and textured state, or heated and burnished to a high gloss to reveal rich greens, browns, blacks and grays. The hardness, shape, density and quantity used of serpentine, verdite, sandstone, granite, steatite and other stones define the ultimate presentation of completed Shona art sculptures and carvings.