Set in stone: Zimbabwean sculptor hammering home Covid-19 messages

·3-min read

Zimbabwean sculptor David Ngwerume will tell you that his country has beautiful stones. “I’m taking advantage of that beauty to capture the world’s attention,” the 40-year-old says.

David Ngwerume gestures to his garden, in a leafy Harare suburb, where his latest creations stand beneath the boughs of shady trees.

“Most of these stones that you see as sculptures are found along mineral belts and some of them are mineral ores,” he says.

Take black springstone, a hard serpentine rock that is rich in iron. It polishes to a beautiful black and is the stone from which he created “Arms”, one of a series of Covid-19 themed sculptures that has taken Zimbabwean social media by storm.

It shows a woman, or rather half a woman, from the waist up. She is masked and striking and presenting her shoulder to a pair of disembodied hands for a vaccination jab.

Relaying messages

Another, entitled “New Normal'' is made from black granite: it’s the profile of a woman’s head, resembling the shape of the African continent. She is wearing a mask.

On the floor of his workshop is a sculpture also made from springstone that at first glance seems an unlikely subject for a Covid-19 message. It is a highly-stylised version of Michael Jackson – entitled “Mask Up” – that shows the late pop icon wearing a hat, mask and gloves.

“He was trying to tell us something but we didn't listen. People laughed at him for wearing a mask and gloves, and now we are urging everyone to do the same,” explains Ngwerume.

During the past year Ngwerume found himself wondering “how best can I be relaying messages and also putting substance in my work and trying to connect with humanity,” he told RFI.

He says vaccination is important, yet hesitancy is global. That’s how he came to carve “Arms” which has probably become his signature piece during the pandemic.

'Community champion'

“Humanity is scared of what they’re getting into and they’re not sure of what would happen if you are vaccinated,” he said.

“We as humanity need to campaign: show people that vaccines work.”

Zimbabwe launched its own mass vaccination campaign over two months ago. The government wants to achieve herd immunity by immunising two-thirds of its 15 million people by the end of the year. But so far just over 300,000 have presented themselves for the jab.

Public health experts blame the lack of clear public health messaging that has given rise to misinformation and disinformation resulting in a low uptake of the vaccines.

“The response to Covid-19 is not just the responsibility of the health sector,” Itai Rusike, the director of the Harare-based Community Working Group on Health told RFI.

“We need community champions and ambassadors such as the influential Harare sculptor David Ngwerume if we are to defeat the current vaccine hesitancy,” he added.

Ngwerume, who began sculpting as a teenager, says the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns in Zimbabwe helped him to focus his creative energy and gave him some time out from his other career as a senior partner in a Harare law firm. Zimbabwe's lockdowns saw his firm’s offices closed for a period, giving him more time in the studio.

Close to humanity

“I had more time to focus. I had more time to grow as an artist,” he says. “The lockdown gave me full attention around my creative outlet.”

Alongside the Covid-themed pieces, Ngwerume is also working on a series called “Taking the Reins”, which reflects his interest in horses.

Pieces like “Rising Stallion” and “Daring a Mustang”, made from brown chrysoprase, reflect these animals’ wildness and beauty.

“When I am portraying horses in ‘Taking the Reins’ you will see sculptures that recognise the feelings that horses have. Horses are very close to humanity,” he says.

Ngwerume hopes that in the near future he will be able to exhibit his pieces around the world.

Given the attention his work is gaining, that seems like a distinct possibility.