African Art at Saint John's

As seen through the eyes of
Father Kilian McDonnell

 

Saint John's Abbey
Collegeville, MN 56321-2015

St. John's has for many years thought of itself as a center of religious renewal. This means that it is itself a worshipping community, coming together twenty-six times a week for prayer made up almost exclusively of scripture, especially the pslams. Because the liturgy is so much a part of our lives we have been involved in the liturgical movement since about the early twenties. Along with the strictly prayer dimension of worship we have been concerned with the artistic and architectural dimension of liturgical prayer.

The whole sacramental system is modeled after the mystery of the Incarnation, that is, the invisible Son of God took visible, palpable flesh in Jesus Christ showing us the way to the invisible God. Therefore, through the visible to the invisible. This sacramental principle, which is at the foundation of liturgical prayer, teaches that it is through the forms of beauty, in stone, cloth, wood, and sound (music and poetry) that we are able to relate to the God, absolute beauty. The beauty and grandeur of God leave their traces, footsteps, in the forms which we create. We are convinced of the vital importance of beauty of form. With Frank Lloyd Wright we believe that first we form buildings and then the buildings form us. That is true also of other art forms. But if we are convinced of the sacramental principle we will see vestiges of God's beauty also in secular art. The church and the sanctuary are not prisons for God.

When I was in Zimbabwe for the meeting of the World Council of Churches in December 1998 I met a young twenty-seven year old sculptor by the name of Andrew Mabanji, and also a co-worker Lloyd Chkede. I saw immediately that they were not making what I call "airport art" for the tourist trade, but were using authentic African forms to create in stone works of the highest merit. Andrew was born in 1974 in Kadoma, Zimbabwe, and he completed his education in 1991. He began working in leather in 1992. But he was inspired by a group of African artists calling themselves the Gota Rochisuma Affiliates who work out of an educational center called Silveira House on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe. Now working mostly in stone he, and his affiliates, such as Lloyd Chkede, have a variety of finished stone works. They also make batiks.

Andrew Mabanji explains the context of the groups' work. "We use as our theme the explosion of negative silence, the voice of the voiceless. As members of the Shona tribe we want to release from the stone the hidden strengths of indigenous Shona culture." The Gota group prefers to work in hard stones as steatite, spring stone, serpentine, verdite, and granite so there will be a living witness to the culture of their Shona community. From the context of that African culture they want to produce religious and non-religious art. The Gota group is not a factory. It does not turn out copies, but wants to create original pieces of art. It is eager to get commissions to create authentic African art on themes which are common to our humanity and to our Christian heritage. It is working on creches, crucifixes, statues of persons (e.g. the prophet Jeremiah). The Gota group would be glad to accept commissions on saints or national heroes.

If a client wishes to have a copy of a statue on the same theme of one of Andrew Mabanji's other works of art he or she has seen, he can do that. He only needs to respect the demands of the piece of stone he will be working with. So it would not be an exact copy. Mr. Mabanji and the other artists are also very much interested in turning out original pieces of art on themes suggested by the client.

Those interested can contact the Gota Atelier directly. The postal address is Mr.Andrew Mabanji, Gota Rochisuma Atelier, Silveira House, Box 545, Harare, Zimbabwe. If contact is made through E-mail be sure to address the letter clearly to the Gota Atelier as others use the same E-mail address. The address is:
Silveira@healthnet.zw
The telephone number is: 011 263 491066 or 491067.

I am not acting as an agent for the Gota Group but I am willing to give what information I have. E-mail: KMcDonnell@csbsju.edu

On the next page is a display of some work I bought from Andrew Mabanji and Lloyd Chkede of the Gota group. By American standards the prices are very reasonable. Photos by Hugh Witzmann, OSB.