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Meet Tandi who has set a new bar for stone art

Zivisai Chagaka

Here is one of Zimbabwe’s own stone carving artists riding high on the continental pedestal. His recent artwork was on July 16 unveiled at the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat Building in Accra, Ghana. It is a bust of Issoufou Mahamadou, former president of Niger and champion of AfCFTA.

The statue of the former statesman — commissioned by the AfCFTA Secretariat, Afreximbank and the African Union (AU) Commission — is an ode to his “pivotal leadership and pan-African vision in driving the realisation of the AfCFTA”.

According to the pan-African bank, Afreximbank, the former Nigerien president’s key achievements include successfully leading the conclusion of the AfCFTA negotiations; its entry into force; the launch of the operational phase of the AfCFTA; the January 1, 2021, start of trading under the AfCFTA; thus being pivotal in placing industrialisation, market liberalisation, economic diversification and economic integration at the centre of the AU’s agenda.

AfCFTA has so far been ratified by 40 countries, including Zimbabwe, and signed by 54 out of the 55 AU nations. It is expected to bring together all the 55 African countries with a population of over 1,3 billion and a combined GDP of US$3,4 trillion into a single free trade market.

In an interview with IndependentXtra this week, the unassuming Tafadzwa Tigere Tandi says he felt “happy and honoured to have been invited to such an important event and to have made such an important contribution at a continental level”.

Born in 1980 and growing up in Murehwa, Tandi says sculpture runs in the family. He started stone carving when he was just nine inspired by his father, who was also a sculptor of note in the country. He is third generation sculptor following after his father — Thomas Tandi — whom he describes as his mentor and greatest inspiration; and his grandfather, Gabriel Tandi, as the first generation.

He did his primary education at Bunhu Primary School and secondary at Muchinjike. He moved to Harare in 1998 where he joined the Chitungwiza Arts Centre — a bustling garden with about a dozen other sculptors — where he is actively pursuing his inborn trade to this day.

No stone too hard or too soft has daunted him from carving his desired artefact: “I can make anything out of stone … I like working on any challenging stones — the hardest stones,” he says. “I usually work on hard stones like verdite, butter jade, etc. I also work on semi-precious stones like agate, red jasper, rose quartz, aventurine, you name it.”

A fine artist he is, but he is more fascinated with human figurines and as much as he has tackled abstract art with ease.

“I have also been commissioned to do portrayals of the former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela and of Ellen DeGeneres, the American comedian, television host and actress.

“In Ghana, I got a lot of experience and I felt so honoured to have been invited to such an important event … It really boosted my confidence and added a lot of value to my work because in art value is the most important thing needed. I was very happy to be recognised by such a big (continental) institution.”

While he has literally hit the jackpot in terms of exposure, he says his target market remains “anyone around the globe who is interested in my work”. Sure to his word, IndependentXtra witnessed preparation of a consignment of artefacts ready for shipping to the United States at his base in Chitungwiza.

Other eye-catching statues, however, cannot escape the eye; one is of a San hunter and his son, titled “Passing It On”, and a young lady carrying a honeycomb on her head named “Beekeeper”. Both were carved from springstone. But those are just but two of the many others on his collection free for takers.

However, he laments the current haemorrhaging of the arts sector brought about by the virulent Covid-19 pandemic and resultant travel restrictions, especially from the major source markets in Europe and America: “It has affected me in the same way it has affected the world economy; every country has been affected economically, so no one is buying as they used to do before.”

And indeed, there is no more travel abroad for exhibitions and workshops.

Tandi says government support to the sector is a matter of necessity as the arts have a huge potential of attracting foreign currency and also uplifting the profile of the country. But the bitter experience has been the usual doctor’s visits from senior bureaucrats — and a string of unfulfilled promises — never to be seen again.

Nevertheless, he says artists should not be discouraged, but continue to up their game: “What I want to see happen in the arts sector is production of best quality workmanship in whatever category and the resolve to carry on regardless of the challenges. Good quality gives more value to one’s work.”

Unfazed by the current outlook in the economy, Tandi says he plans to start a school of art. The school should help the future generation of sculptors to come up with quality works of art.

Back in Accra, Mahamadou’s bust was unveiled at a ceremony attended by several heads of state and government and other continental dignitaries. The initiative is a product of Afreximbank’s art programme, which supports and promotes the African contemporary art ecosystem, the African lender says.

Mahamadou received the honour a few months after receiving the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership in March 2021 for advancing and upholding democratic change in his country when he renounced a third term as Niger’s president.

“In this regard, with the assistance of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Tafadzwa Tandi was selected to sculpt the statue … relying on an ancient tradition of stone sculpting that can be traced back to the ancient Great Zimbabwe Kingdom (13th to 15th Century), which has morphed into a very popular contemporary art movement in Zimbabwe and is recognised all over the world for its craftsmanship and skill,” a note on the Afreximbank website said.

Zimbabwean stone sculpture is well-documented and is sought-after the world over — from the fabled Zimbabwe Birds to contemporary works that gained international prominence in the 1950s — it has evolved into an art movement.

In June, a statue by another Zimbabwean sculptor David Ngwerume was unveiled at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Covid-19-inspired artwork titled “The Jab of Faith” was commissioned by the AU and is now on permanent display there.

Meanwhile, some of the few names that have made it on the global scene include Henry Munyaradzi, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Joseph Ndandarika, Agnes Nyanhongo, Bernard Matemera, Perlagia Mutyavaviri, among many others. And Tandi belongs to the young generation of sculptors exposed to new technologies, education and socio-political developments of a modern world and are building on the old school.

He is married and has three children.

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