Dominic Benhura is one of the foremost stone sculptors in Zimbabwe who has exhibited extensively around the world. A second generation sculptor, he has a distinct style and his work is instantly recognisable. He is in his element when working with human forms and with hard stones like springstone.
Some of his best work consists of a dynamic sense of movement, celebration and seem to defy gravity! He will certainly go down in history as one of the masters of stone sculpture in Zimbabwe. Dominic has been such an inspiration through his work and what he has achieved as an artist. This work although atrocious, doesn’t take away my respect for his work in general.
Also Read Views by artists and designers on this topic here Dominic Benhura: Views from Zimbabwean artists on #MugabeStatue
So when a friend asked me if I had seen the latest piece from Dominic Benhura I was not ready for what I saw. I went onto Facebook and there it was, all 7.8m of it! Soon after I saw it, it was trending on social media with various opinions about the work. One camp was in awe stating that Dominic Benhura should be applauded for making such a huge statue out of a hard stone like Springstone. Others were not impressed with work and insisted it was ugly and an insult to the president. It was sad to see a person of Dominic’s calibre being ridiculed and trashed on social media. Had I seen this piece of work without Dominic standing next to it and confirming ownership, I would have called it a knock off.
Dominic confirms that he didn’t wake up inspired to create a work of art in memory of the President, but he was asked (read commissioned) to do it. Over the past few months we have seen the power of social media in Zimbabwe and Dominic must have had a rude awakening when he felt its impact. To such a point he felt he needed to respond and clarify. Dominic defended himself by saying it was his style is not about depicting an exact likeness. And yet he seemed to be doing just that with this sculpture.
I didn’t buy that. We all know his style and this is not executed to his normal standard. When hard stone is involved, Dominic is in his element. He breathes it, eats it for breakfast lunch and supper, when he sleeps he probably lays his head down on a serpentine pillow. He is no novice and I can say he is a master. Which is why I cannot excuse him on the craftsmanship of that obelisk. And there was no need for him to respond.
When I first saw the picture with the stature and the president, I was disappointed in Dominic Benhura, as we had just come from an exhibition called #KusirikufaNdekupi, with young artists, Zimbabwean artists in Johannesburg boldly coming out to speak up against injustices by our repressive regime. And then to see one we look up to supping with the regime, celebrating and honouring the president who has been presiding over the degeneration of our country, was saddening.
At a time where we expected renowned artist like him to make a stand, he does presents this this piece. So I am sure some of the protest about this piece has not just been about the artwork it self but about the statement he is making in honouring the person who has been at the helm during destruction of this country.
My Interpretation of the work
Good art normally opens up various interpretations to the viewer, some intentional by the artists and some not intentional. At times there will be subliminal messages beyond the obvious. Dominic’s work is usually dynamic creating movement using negative space and balance. In this piece he has used one solid block with no negative space, that makes it stagnant, slow and clumsy. I think his choice of pose was also not great.
The tilted angle whether intentional or not is interesting. If intentional it gives the impression of the figure falling over, although it could be argued that he was portraying a superhero bravely flying off to fight for his people. Or it is a result of the form of the original stone he used. The latter doesn’t fly because of Dominic’s skill and experience, he can easily make the statue stand up straight. Which leaves the question for the artist to answer, why was the stature slanting?
In the absence of a clear and timely rationale from the artist, speculation about the artists intent and statement were left for social media art connoisseurs to make a judgement. And judge they did, the prevailing message being that Dominic was making a statement against the president, presenting a caricature of His Excellency, mocking him. And having the audacity to present it right to his face. To that end I think Dominic was genius in his depiction of our great leader.
My interpretation of it being, though you have been larger than life, you are at the end of your life. You have fought the good fight but your end is not going to be a good one, ending in a fall, and nothing can change that. And an apt title of the piece would be “The Inevitable”. Brave man Dominic Benhura, brave indeed… But this interpretation is wishful because I don’t think Dominic is that ‘type’ of artist.
In Defence of Dominic Benhura
Any artists would love the opportunity to be commissioned by the Office of the State Residence. To have their work in the collection of the presiding head of state, to be displayed at statehouse. Am sure Dominic jumped at this opportunity even though it was not down his alley. It was probably a strictly business transaction, of which he would have been handsomely paid. He may have taken comfort in seeing Tuku perform at the million man march and thought, why shouldn’t I take this opportunity to make some money? If its business with Tuku why not me too.
With that in mind he may not have had creative freedom, hence the outcome, which I greatly suspect. I would like to give Dominic the benefit of the doubt and say he was not for the idea to get any a semblance of likeness as that is not his style. I will go out on a limb and say the client insisted they have some likeness and Dominic complied to the wishes of his client. He also used this platform to make a relevant statement
“The appreciation of our work by the President is very good because it is going to ring in the relevant ministries that this industry is an industry not just a hobby” – HeraldOnline
This is a sentiment that artists in Zimbabwe have always said. The arts are ignored. That is confirmed by the absence of representatives from the ministry of Arts and Culture at the presentation. No, art is not taken seriously in Zimbabwe, unless if artists are protesting. There was something conspicuous about the absence of the minister of Arts and Culture. For the small gathering of people at the unveiling of the statue that smacks of internal manoeuvring. Lastly Dominic may not have had a choice. maybe he did the work as his ‘patriotic duty’. Or out of fear, so certainly inspiration would have been left at the door…
Was this a veiled protest against the regime, I doubt it, you have heard of conscious rappers and conscious reggae, I don’t think Dominic Benhura is a conscious artist. Just not part of his repertoire. Was he protesting against being forced to do something he is not comfortable with, that I may just buy. Protesting by not applying himself 100% to the task. Will this have an impact to his career, as he maybe perceived as a sympathiser to the regime? The large amount of people who went at this work are not art buyers. Either way the artwork has created a lot of talk which is also publicity for the artist whether good or bad. So well played Benhura people who did not know you are talking about you. Now for a sculpture of the First lady too…