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Oasis for African fine art marks 20 years

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Dusty Hind’s love affair with Zimbabwe Art (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Picasso has nothing on the master sculptors of the fine art movement in Zimbabwe.

Working with the hard stone that is unique to sub-Saharan Africa, Shona fine artists can spend up to nine months working on a single piece.

Art insiders consider them among the world’s top sculptors.

“Everything is carved by hand,” says Dusty Hind, who this month celebrates 20 years at the helm of Crisson & Hind African Gallery Bermuda.

“Almost every piece not only represents skill, artistic ability and knowledge, but also is hard work.

“Picasso used to sit in an armchair with a beer and a cigarette, but the fine artists work hard, hard, hard.”

Mr Hind’s Front Street gallery contains hundreds of pieces by the 25 masters who represent the best of the fine art movement. He has visited Zimbabwe some 30 times during two decades, most recently in January, buying directly from the artists.

“Because we go to Zimbabwe once or twice a year, we go to the mines and quarries to help the artists get the stone they need,” Mr Hind says. “Last year, I bought a tonne of butter jade and a tonne of verdite.

“Some of our artists have been providing their work to us for 20 years, and a number of them for 15 years, and we have great relationships with them.”

Mr Hind, who earned a degree in fine art with a specialisation in sculpture from Portsmouth College of Art, said he was aware of African art at school during the late 1950s — but didn’t fully appreciate it until much later.

He bought his first piece of modern African art in 1982, and purchased two pieces by Shona artists three years later — but it was during a trip to Zimbabwe with wife Barbara that his view was transformed.

“Traditional Shona sculpture is somewhat abstract and stylised, but I saw my first realistic work in 1998 and was completely blown away,” he said.

“I saw their ability, their understanding of stone and their skill at thinking in the round. A good piece of sculpture should work from 360 degrees. If it doesn’t, you’re not taking advantage of the subject itself.”

A year later, Mr Hind returned to Zimbabwe to buy 25 pieces, enough to launch the gallery.

At first, the artists were paid in Zimbabwean dollars, but the collapse of the country’s economy prompted a change.

“In August 1998, the exchange rate was 17 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar,” Mr Hind recalls. “By January 2010, it was five trillion Zimbabwean dollars to one US.

“In 2003 or 2004, the bank would deliver us the money to pay the artists, and the artists would leave with 50 pounds in weight of money in shrink-wrapped bank notes. We decided to start paying in US dollars.”

The gallery operated upstairs, with Crisson Jewellers downstairs, for 15 years. Five years ago, Crisson moved out — and Mr Hind moved his operation down a flight of stairs.

“When you are upstairs, you can be a gallery,” he says. “But when you are downstairs, you have to be a shop. It is a whole different approach due to the high traffic volume.

“If someone walks in and comes upstairs, knowing there is an art gallery there, they have begun to make a commitment. We generally saw ten to 20 people a day upstairs, but we see 50 to 100 downstairs. And so we sell them $50 elephants and $20 bracelets.”

The gallery’s best year, he said, was 2008. The following year, at the height of the global recession, was its worst. “We’re still not back to where we were,” Mr Hind says.

Three quarters of gallery customers are from overseas. Mr Hind received a shipment of more than 100 pieces recently. After contacting clients, he expects visits this week from collectors hailing from Kentucky, New York and Atlanta.

He once sold 21 pieces over four years to a German collector, while a couple tracked him down in order to find pieces by Lazarus Tandi, a favourite of theirs.

“They hadn’t been able to buy his work because I had been buying it all,” Mr Hind says. “They came into the gallery, and we shipped two pieces to them in Johannesburg.”

The best sculptors of the fine art movement, Mr Hind said, are brothers Peter and Israel Chikumbirike. Sculptors for more than 40 years, they have each carved just 150 pieces.

“We have bought everything that Peter has produced in the last five years,” Mr Hind says. “I’ve got five years of his life in the gallery.”

Warrior, a striking piece made in verdite stone by Peter, is for sale at $32,800.

“Prices might look a little high, but a piece can take months to create,” Mr Hind says. “That is hard work every day. It takes a very, very special talent and you have to divide the price by the number of months spent on it — and then realise that we shipped the piece 8,000 miles. Would you work for a thousand dollars a month?”

The best of the Shona artists make a reasonable living, Mr Hind says.

“Israel has a beautiful five-bedroom house on four hectares with four live-in staff to look after he and his wife,” says Mr Hind, who is godfather to their daughter, Gracious. “He also owns a small farm with 25 workers.

“I have paid as much as $35,000 for a single piece of his sculpture. The really good ones are doing fine.”

After two decades, Mr Hind, now in his 70s, is enjoying his work.

He is the sole full-time employee. Son, Mike, works part-time, while Barbara — a senior lecturer at Bermuda College — assists during the summer, and at Christmas and Easter.

“The joy of doing what we do is that all the pieces of art are one-of-a-kind,” Mr Hind says. “If you buy, you are the only one who has the piece. That is a pretty neat promise to be able to give.

“It’s too much fun to stop. I am just having a tremendous time, so while I can, I will.”

Warrior: by Peter Chikumbirike, made of verdite stone (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Dancing Zulu: by Peter Chikumbirike, made of cobalt stone (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Seven Elephants: by Edmore Chirume, made of spring stone (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
A Mother is Mother: by Israel Chikumbirike, made of golden verdite stone (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)