Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Alone with Strangers

In July 2014, I was part of a guided tour to Groote Schuur, the house that belonged to colonizer Cecil John Rhodes, who bequeathed it to the nation of South Africa. According to our tour guide, the house was originally built in about 1657 by the Dutch East Indian Company. Rhodes had bought it in 1893 when it was in a state of neglect for 10 000 British pounds. Architect Herbert Baker was commissioned by Rhodes to restore the house.

The history, architecture, the names of guests who had stayed in the house and the antique furniture and objects in the house was all well fascinating, but my main interest on that day was in  seeing the Zimbabwe soapstone bird, an symbolic and culturally significant artwork that was, as one of my tour partners on the day Kirsty Cockerill put it, 'nicked' from Great Zimbabwe in  the city of Masvingo, south of Harare. Great Zimbabwe, a heritage site consisting of freestanding, moltarless, stone-walled structure  is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in sub-saharan Africa.

Zimbabwe Stone Bird at Groote Schuur, Cape Town, South Africa (July 2014)

As a young man, l have always been interested in these soapstone which I had seen the stylized version of one of these soapstone bird on the Zimbabwean currency dollar coins and on the Zimbabwean national flag. It would continue in high school, learning  further of the significance of this artworks and the history of the great Mutapa and Rozvi states. In 2003, a ceremony that celebrated the reunification of one portion of the bird that was returned to the country by a German museum was televised live on Zimbabwe national television, which I watched attentively. Then as a student of art, archaeology and cultural heritage, my knowledge and interest in both Great Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe stone birds was heightened. In addition, one of my university lectures, Prof. Ashton Sinamai, was an archaeologist who had previously been the curator of archaeology at  Great Zimbabwe National Heritage site, and he shared valuable information with me.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe holds the lower portion of the ancient stone sculpture the "Zimbabwe Bird" at a ceremony in Zimbabwe Wednesday May 14, 2003. The sculpture was officially handed over by the German Ambassador Peter Schmidt, second left, and Zimbabwean Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi, left. Germany returned the carved base of the "Zimbabwe Bird" that has spent on near 100 years in the hands of European collectors and museums. (Associated Press

Returning to the story on the Groote Schuur tour, one of the last stops towards the end of the tour was in the bedroom that Cecil Rhodes slept. Here we found the soapstone bird that was looted from the country. I looked at it intensely, feeling overwhelmed and at the same time frustrated, seeing it isolated and placed there as just one other object, stuffed up on top of a cabinet whose contents was other artifacts that Rhodes and his associates plundered during their conquest of Zimbabwe in the 1890's.

One of the Great Zimbabwe bird at Groote Schuur (25 July 2014)
Curious to know how did this significant cultural object end up in South Africa, I researched the journey it took. Willie Posselt, a European hunter stole the first bird from Great Zimbabwe in 1889 where he found four birds on the hill in the Eastern Enclosure. Ignoring the protests of the indeginous Shona custodians living in the area, he physically cut one these soapstone bird sculptures. This soapstone bird he later sold to Cecil Rhodes and it has remained as part of the estate of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town, South Africa ever since (Dewey, 2003).

Inside Cecil John Rhodes bedroom in Cape Town, with the stone bird opposite his bed, on top of his curiosity cabinet on the left.

Below is an extract that gives an account to the events on how this and other birds left the country by Edward Matenga's in 'The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe: Archaeological Heritage, Religion and Politics in post colonial Zimbabwe and the Return of Cultural Property' :-

 "...the first transaction,supposedly a purchase, involving a stone Bird from Great Zimbabwe took place in August 1889, a year before Rhodesia was founded, and represents the first historic cultural exportation from Zimbabwe. Willi Posselt, a regular hunter and trader operating from South Africa was on an expedition north of the Limpopo. Local people of Chief Mativi in Chivi Communal Lands told him about Great Zimbabwe, and there were reportedly some stone images of a king and queen. In his imagination, such finds would confirm the popularized view of the African possessions of the Queen of Sheba. Expecting to find the emblems of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Posselt visited the site on 14 August, thus becoming the 4th earliest European known to visit the site. 

Permission to enter the ruins was granted by Chief Mugabe.......Posselt saw four soapstone Birds planted in what is now called the Eastern Enclosure during a second visit to the site. He decided to remove one of the Birds, one that in his opinion was the finest specimen, but he was stopped by the site custodian, Haruzivishe, brother and close adviser of Chief Mugabe....... He (Haruzivishe) and his men brandished their weapons in protest and were ready to stop Posselt with force, if necessary. Posselt was also armed, but sensing the danger of continuation with the operation, called off the plan and retreated. The next day he changed tactics and paid a “price” in blankets and got the prized Bird.........Posselt took the stone Bird to South Africa, where he initially had intended to sell it to the President of South African Republic, Paul Kruger, for inclusion into the collection of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria......Although Kruger expressed interest, he procrastinated until Posselt approached his political arch-rival, Cecil John Rhodes, who bought it for a personal collection at his Groote Schuur residence in Cape Town. From its place in a shrine, because of the antiquarian tastes of an English gentleman (Belk 1995), the Bird was now put into a household collection."

According to Matenga, the following year (1890) Rhodes occupied Zimbabwe in the European 'Scramble for Africa'. He sent a team of archaeologists to Great Zimbabwe, notably Theodore Bent and Richard Hall, who carried out unsystematic and destructive archaeological excavations at the site focusing on their efforts to prove that Great Zimbabwe was inhabited by people with a Semitic background. According to scholars, Europeans had a great deal of romance and idealism at that time which had been created by those who believed of the existence of a great castle ruins, whose origin was credited to everybody other than the indigenous Shona custodians, but rather to the Sabaeans, Phoenicians and Hebrews. (Matenga, 2011). Bent took the remaining soapstone birds from the site  and took them to a museum in Cape Town (now Iziko Museum) where they began the journey of travelling throughout Europe.

Display of replicas of the Zimbabwe Birds at Iziko Museum, Cape Town

Some of the Zimbabwe Soapstone Birds at Great Zimbabwe Museum 
As a visual  artist, I am amazed by the creative and technical skills of these old masters who created these magnificent sculptural pieces of art. Winter-Irving noted in 1991 that the earliest manifestations of a visual culture in Zimbabwe are seen in the architecture, rock painting and the Great Zimbabwe birds. The Zimbabwe birds are the most precious works of art in Zimbabwe today and highly valued religiously, culturally and politically. Made out of soapstone, Matenga (1998) believes that there are eight birds in total, though the exact number of how many where there is unknown.  Dewey (2003) notes the birds alone are all about 33 cm in height and with the columns stand about 1.6 meters high. He further notes that they were divided into two groups on the basis of the style with the first stone birds  consisting 'of those that squat with bent legs on rectangular plinths and have horizontal beaks, and the other group, with legs hanging down onto the ring they perch on, all have round columns and point their beaks vertically'.

Over the years, I have referenced to stone birds in my artwork as a symbol of the artistic heritage and Zimbabwean identity. The painting titled 'The Surgeon' (2012) include a reference of the image of the bird and a series of drawings titled 'Shiri/Hungwe' (2013) depicts a stylized version of the Zimbabwe Bird, with the one housed in Cape Town coloured in red. I have had the privilege of seeing the real soapstone birds (the seven birds which were returned from South Africa in 1981) at the site museum at Great Zimbabwe on a visit to the site and now having seen the eight at Groote Schuur. I envision drawing the birds in real life at the museum one day, with the approval of the museum surely.  
Shiri /Hungwe, 2013, Charcoal on book paper                      Click on image to enlarge

A series of drawings of the Zimbabwe stone birds on display on the 'sacred wall' in Cape Town                     Click on image to enlarge

The big question is when will this bird ever go back to its home in Zimbabwe. Hopefully not that complex as both Zimbabwe and South Africa are now democracies or maybe not, looking at all the complications of restitution and repatriation of stolen cultural property. It is my wish that  Zimbabwean (and South Africans) citizens should actively seek to pave a way for the return of this iconic artwork. We can all start with a hashtag 'Return Our Bird Campaign' or a petition for the 'Return of the Stone Bird and Reunification at Great Zimbabwe'

For more detailed information regarding the history and events, please read my sources:


1.  Edward Matenga, 2011: The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe: Archaeological Heritage, Religion and Politics in post colonial Zimbabwe and the Return of Cultural Property, Institutionen
för arkeologioch antik historia. Studies in Global Archaeology 16. 258 pp. Uppsala. ISBN 978-91-506-­2240-­9.
(Download PDF at

2.  William J. Dewey, 2003: Repatriation of a Great Zimbabwe Stone Bird, The University of Tennessee (Download PDF at

Artist with the bird at Groote Schuur, Cape Town, South Africa (July 2014)