Opening the Crates!
January 21, 1998 San Francisco Bay Guardian
One by one, sculptor Peter Ostwald opens the crates on the loading dock outside his West Oakland studio and reaches deep into the mopani wood chips used as packing. Their faint scent is full as cedar and sharp as cheese, but still like nothing I can locate in memory, "It smells different," he says. "You get transported back."
"Back" means Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, and the village of Tengenenge where some one hundred people of the Shona tribe live amid the thousands of their hand-carved stone sculptures that populate the surrounding woods. Ostwald carefully extracts sculpture after sculpture, some large enough to require several people to lift them, and sets them out on work benches and shelves for those of us at this "crate opening reception" to view and admire.
Admirable they are: exquisite gallery-quality human figurines and faces, animals and abstractions, carved from dark green or brown serpentine. What's most amazing is that these are not the work of the Shona but of people who may never before have created a work of art; a 14-year old girl and her mother, a 72-year old man, a teacher from Oakland. "There must be some common denominator," sculptor Leslie Bacile muses, "but it's elusive."
Each summer, Ostwald leads a handful of adventurous people on a sculpture safari to Tengenenge, where for three weeks they chisel, carve, and polish the antive stones under the experienced guidance of Shona sculptors. Bacile has made the trip twice. The safari has become so popular that this year Ostwald is adding a second group.
It's a cultural travel of a unique kind. Participants rise early and spend their days sculpting on a sunny hillside amid bougainvillea, jacaranda, and umbrella-like masasa trees. After dark, they retire to their mud huts or gather with the tribal drummers around the village fire.
"It's a life-changing experience," Bacile says. "It's great listening to the wind rustling through the thatched roof at night, then waking to the sounds of the African morning.It's still with me."
Travel Notes By Randall Lyman
Tengenenge Sculpture Garden
These images are of the outdoor exhibition that forms the village of Tengenenge, Zimbabwe. There are always a few dozen sculptors in residence out of almost two hundred artists represented. Their work over the last few years has formed a truly amazing landscape of over three thousand unique, individually produced, works in the village's own serpentine stone.
These stone sculptures, spread throughout the Mopani tree covered hills and thatched huts of Tengenenge, created magical surroundings for me and the participants in my sculpture safaris.