Stories on stone

Maheshpreet Kaur Narula
Filed on November 29, 2019

(Neeraj Murali)

World leaders are in possession of Dominic Benhura's sculptures - and each piece tells a story

Proudly displayed in Showcase Gallery at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, are Dominic Benhura's sculptures. A quick tour around the open space and you'll get an idea of his preferred style. From sharp angles to multi-coloured inlays and figures of mothers playing with their children -  Benhura hopes to use his Zimbabwean sculptures to connect with the world. His biggest inspiration? Women.
"I was brought up by my mother and aunt," he says. "Women, especially in Africa, wear all sorts of wraps and it creates a lot of movement, from the wind and from walking. They also dress colourfully, so for me, it's quite inspiring. That's why I thought of putting design inlays in the stones to create beautiful dresses."
Benhura's pieces often begin from a sketch he ideates on scraps of paper. He then goes to the quarry to buy the stones, mostly serpentine and dolomite - black and white respectively. Once he starts working, the original sketch is forgotten. Inspiration takes shape as his chisels, rubber hammers, drills, sandpaper and other tools carve out ideas to become sculptures. "Nothing is difficult, it's all about technique," says the 51-year-old.
Benhura was just 10 years old when he started sculpting. He learnt the art from his cousin, Tapfuma Gutsa, at Tafara Primary School in Harare. "I was fascinated by the medium." As a brilliant science student, Benhura's family wanted him to pursue the sciences. But his love for sculpting got the better of him, and by the time he was 20, Benhura had to take a decision - either listen to his family and become a doctor or follow his heart. He decided on the latter. "I followed my heart and maybe that's why I am successful. Had I agreed to become a doctor, I would not be here. I had this feeling that I would make it as an artist and I was right."
Indeed just last month, Dominic Benhura was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy in Culture and Heritage from the Women's University in Africa (WUA). "The guilt I was feeling was lifted. I thought, 'well, I didn't betray my mother. I became a doctor afterall.'"  
Benhura has sculpted for world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Kenneth Kaunda,  Rupiah Banda and Xi Jinping but he treasures his moments with President Nelson Mandela the most.  "I had 30 minutes with the president, so I have many photos with him; it was wonderful. When he touched my hand, it felt like a blessing." The Nelson Mandela Foundation wanted to install one of Benhura's sculptures in President Mandela's courtyard. Every time the president would look out into the courtyard, he would remember his time on Robben Island, the prison. To combat this,  Benhura made a sculpture of a mother playing with her child, called Swing Me Mama which still stands. "President Mandela's sculpture was different because of who he was - he was one of a kind," says Benhura.
At the Showcase Gallery, tucked away in a corner, is Benhura's earlier work - from when he was 14. With a round body and prominent fingers, it represents traditional Shona sculptures. Rooted in the Shona tribe - to which his mother belongs - this art form has since evolved and Benhura credits this evolution to education, the internet and the global sculpting community.
Rounded figures soon became angular for Benhura and his style changed even as the Shona art form changed. "Artists would sculpt faces and they looked sad. Hence, I moved away from sculpting details."
Benhura's sculptures further evolved - some of them do not have fingers, some are beautifully coloured with translucent glass and some are of animals.
His solo exhibition in Dubai features many such pieces. To truly appreciate them, one needs to understand the amount of work that goes into each sculpture. Benhura says it's all about technique and the positioning of both the stone and the sculptor, but there is more. From the different colours that polishing and sandpapering uncovers to the rough carving that makes way for inlays, each piece tells a story.
This may be Dominic Benhura's first trip to Dubai, but his pieces have made it here long before he did - 10 years ago.
Benhura has been able to sell many of his sculptures in the UAE. "Once you reach a certain level, your art becomes collectible, so people talk about it." This time around, he has more mother-and-child pieces, though his  fancy now is sculpturing animals and plants. His reason for creating the art has, however, remained the same even after 41 years. "I want to bring light to people and make them happy."
Benhura's success can be credited to his constant evolutionary styles and to art collectors. He walks up to one of his mother-and-child sculptures where white dolomite is strategically placed in serpentine. "I see a lot of people smile when they see this one. It reminds them of their grandchildren or sisters or nieces." Neither the mother nor the child have facial expressions. "They can be mothers and children of the world," says Benhura.

(Dominic Benhura's exhibition from Zimbabwe, 'Between Me and the Stone' is on till January 18, at Showcase Gallery, Alserkal Avenue. Prices start at Dh7,000 for a sculpture.)

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