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JOURNEY TO GREAT ZIMBABWE: SEARCHING FOR A COMMON THEME IN ARTISTIC RENDITIONS

Updated: Jun 11, 2018





“As above, so below.” “Let thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” To most of us the more familiar quotation is the latter which is taken from the Bible. The former is less familiar and yet both carry the same message or meaning which is applicable to African culture. Africans have always sought to replicate the heavens on earth. Their Thought and Cosmology are built on cosmic observations, perceptions and reality.

As promised last week, this is the first of several articles on Great Zimbabwe whose legacy we are all too familiar with. Great Zimbabwe is a cultural complex and a multifarious artistic rendition that embraces both tangible and intangible aspects. Cultural practices are informed by and underpinned by a people’s cosmology and their worldview. The cosmos or heavens are sources of cosmology or worldview. The cosmos give birth to cosmology, which is Thought gleaned from “above”, the “heavens.” Out of the cosmology and worldview, cultural practices emerge and are congruent with both the cosmos and cosmology.


This, in our case, will mean Great Zimbabwe is a reflection or mirror of the cosmology or worldview of the builders of the stone edifice. As pointed out above, cosmology itself is underpinned by a people’s understanding of the cosmos; the heavens. Whatever cosmic perceptions were held, they lay at the heart of putting together the culturally complex edifice. Expressed differently, Great Zimbabwe is a mirror image of the heavens and this is true of other African creations.


One aspect that will become apparent is that the cultural edifice is an artistic creation. A lot of cosmological ideas are expressed. Art expresses culture and to interpret Great Zimbabwe is synonymous with interrogating African art. As will be shown later, the art on display is quite complex. As we seek an interpretation of the art, we are not seeking answers regarding who built the edifice. We are quite cognizant that this is an issue that is mired in political and ethnic controversies.


We aim to fly beyond and above the frontiers of such issues. We seek to identify a common theme resident at Great Zimbabwe. Our major point of departure is that indeed, there is a common theme that is expressed in the major art form relevant to Great Zimbabwe, namely, architecture and sculpture. It is a theme that traverses and manifests itself throughout the whole structure. Attributes of some artifacts or crafts will be referred to as some of them complement artistic evidence. In any case, elements of African Aesthetic reside in artifacts and crafts elements. Complementarily between nature and culture will become evident.

We have entered another zone, that of African Aesthetics or African Beauty. We shall subject the cultural monument to known principles pertaining African Aesthetics or African Beauty. What will be clear is the link between art and the cosmos, a link between nature and culture. Nature get reflected on the cultural front-“as above, so below.” If that be the case, we should be able to identify natural or cosmic elements at Great Zimbabwe and, indeed there are many. The elements that are of interest to us exist independently of who built the cultural edifice, when and why. If anything, the common theme will speak loud and clear as regards the who and why questions on the subject of Great Zimbabwe. The greatness of Great Zimbabwe does not lie in the magnitude of its physical dimensions. Rather it is the manner and complexity relating the way it captures various elements of African Thought. Scrutiny of the Zimbabwe Bird will bear testimony to the fact.


Africa sometimes deals with themes that border on immorality and vulgarity. Ideas about, and limits of pornography, led to tolerable artistic ways of handling or circumventing socially unpalatable expressions. The one such theme relates to sex or sexual intimacy. We shall see differences in the manner in which male and female genitals are portrayed at Great Zimbabwe and, indeed, in other settings elsewhere. Sex and sexuality was a theme that could not be skirted as it lies at the heart of one theme represented at cosmic level and, by extension, at Great Zimbabwe. We are going to use the term axiology to refer to the skirting of essential themes that carry pornographic vividness. Vividness was avoided. Art became the veritable medium for mediating the treacherous terrain of anti-social terminologies and remaining within the confines of morality. The language and expression of art copes with issues seemingly taboo; issues that would best be kept under the tongue.


Failure to interrogate symbolism makes it difficult to delve into the artistic expressions resident at Great Zimbabwe and beyond within the African world. I may safely say I was introduced to the field of symbolism by Professor Thomas Huffman of the University of Witwatersrand’s Archaeology Department. Another person who provided the initial spark was Dr David William-Lewis. Both gentlemen sought to work from an African perspective. Professor Huffman’s book, “Snakes and crocodiles: Power and Symbolism in Ancient Zimbabwe” set me on a long journey towards understanding minds of ancient Africans. My latest book, “The Big Five: An Afro-centric Perspective” dwells at length on symbolism and symbolic manipulation. What we shall come across at Great Zimbabwe is a lot of applied symbolism and its application within the context of artistic renditions.


Dr Lewis-William(2006) wrote as follows regarding interpretation of San rock art, “We can gaze at rock art for as long as we like, but this will not help us to make better guesses at its meanings; indeed , it is never likely that any flawed sense of understanding of the art will simply be a reflection of our pre-conceptions, expectations and prejudices.)


African perceptions of life are important to appreciate and understand in interpretation of Great Zimbabwe. Life, an unending cycle, exists on two planes or realms, posited the Africans: the material/tangible and spiritual/intangible realms. Birth, puberty, marriage and death take place within the material or earthly plane. Death marks transition from one plane to the next where both are locked in eternal interfacing and mutual interaction. No wonder, there are complex African rites and rituals that attend to death, all calculated to effect smooth transition to the world of spirits. Similarly, birth lies at the interface between the two worlds. It marks transition from the spirit world into material world.

Africa’s greatest stone structures, the pyramids, are markers and celebration of that important transition from Mother Earth to the world of spirits. Pyramid writings found within the grandiose ephemeral life-to-eternal life rock edifices bear testimony to the idea of imparting eternal life to the Pharaoh’s departing soul or spirit. The ankh is one such writing which symbolizes eternity. Such ostentatious stone structures were not trading sites, nor were they royal towns or sites of human settlement, let alone church buildings. The question that we may pose is, “What did Africa prioritize and devote technology, human labour, knowledge and skill to translate ideas of eternity into concrete flamboyant stone structures?”


On the earth plane, there were stages in human development that were accompanied by rites and rituals when each stage was reached. It will become apparent later, why one stage became critically important once the overarching theme has been identified and pinned. Puberty signifies attainment of biological maturity, the stage where human bodies acquired capacity to replicate themselves through sexual reproduction/procreation. Are we going to identify some link between attainment of puberty and artistic expressions of same?


The journey to Great Zimbabwe is a journey to African Cosmology, a trail to African Worldview and, indeed, a voyage and expedition to the African Mind. The mind is critically important to understand. It creates and hands over to hands, sometimes feet and body, to translate created mental ideas to concrete substances at material level. While the mind engages in creative endeavours, hands build, sculpt, engrave, paint, write, mould, craft etc, so that one mind’s creation is in a form that may be consumed by other minds.


Over the years, I have written several books that focused on African Thought, African Worldview and the African Mind, as fields that are a sine qua non for meaningful and sustainable understanding of African phenomena. Great Zimbabwe is one such phenomenon and we are going to understand and interpret it not outside the African Mind, but right inside. Some of these books include the following: African Aesthetics and Iconography: Celebrating the AU’s Golden Jubilee”; “Rock Art in the Matobo Hills: Seeking to Understand the Minds of San Artists”; “Echoes From the Past: Interpreting Zimbabwe’s Decorative Symbols”; “Zimbabwe’s Traditional Dances: Woso”: “Zimbabwe’s Traditional Dances: Jerusarema Mbende”; “Zimbabwe’s Traditional Dances: Wosana”; The Big Five: An Afro-centric Perspective.”


What we have furnished above is a skeleton, some sort of template that we shall work with as we embark on the Journey to Great Zimbabwe. What we cannot overemphasize here, is the fact that the cultural edifice that Great Zimbabwe is, is more an artistic creation demanding that we interpret it in the full knowledge that we are strongly equipped with analytical tools with which to unpack the artistic renditions.

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