House of stone

Roy Guthrie was a refrigerator salesman in South Africa before he moved to Zimbabwe and established its largest sculpture park.

Chapungu Sculpture Park. Image credit Martin Addison via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Roy Guthrie, who died in Zimbabwe on March 5, was once a widely known refrigerator salesman in South Africa before he migrated to then Rhodesia as a young man in the late 1960s. He continued in his trade of buying and selling electronics until he took over Gallery Shona Sculpture from a disillusioned couple who were leaving the country after the “unilateral declaration of independence” came into effect. This seismic political event was followed by the imposition of international sanctions by the United Nations. Although aimed at major trade goods, the sanctions crippled the sale and exhibitions of sculptures, making the art business difficult. Guthrie’s career change led to half a century of promoting Zimbabwean stone sculpture worldwide. In 1980, the year of independence, Guthrie bought a 35-acre farm, Doone Estate, at the edge of Harare, where he opened Chapungu Sculpture Park as a venue for exhibitions and artist residencies. 

In the history of Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture, three curator-patrons appear over and over in making the art form globally recognized and celebrated in the last half of the 20th century: Frank McEwen, Tom Blomefield, and Roy Guthrie. McEwen, founding director of the National Gallery in Rhodesia, was the eccentric patron who had the colonial romantic imagination that shaped “Shona” stone sculpture into a modern art using his background and international networks. Blomefield, a tobacco farmer, was forced by the economic impact of UDI to turn his Tengenenge farm into an arts colony. His workers, mostly local villagers and migrants from Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia, all became accidental artists. The farm was conveniently located in an area with the serpentine stone commonly used in stone sculpture. Meanwhile, Guthrie, until now, was the last man standing in a trio that catapulted stone sculpture to the world stage. The refrigerator salesman’s pivot to the business of selling stones is surely his enduring legacy. While the other patrons took a more developmental approach to the art form, Guthrie then working with his first wife, Megan, focused on the business of the art. 

 Guthrie’s approach was not only to market the product (stone), or an art form (sculpture) but the context in which the art itself was being created (Zimbabwe). He once remarked: “…good art can (and perhaps must) be a local affair—the product of a particular place and culture. And one of the most remarkable things in the contemporary art world is the school of sculptors that has flourished in [Zimbabwe].”

Just before the Covid pandemic, I had the fortune to visit Chapungu Sculpture Park to meet with Guthrie and his current wife, Marcey Mushore, as we explored what an archive of his half-a-century work as a stone broker could look like. Many of the characters—artists, curators, brokers—in the stone sculpture movement are not widely known. Their histories are not properly recorded. The art itself is often monumental, human size, but those who produce it are history’s stock figures, names with no biographies and names with no stories.

Beyond the architectural metaphor of Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone, who were the builders and stone workers behind the legend of Zimbabwe? The country itself gets its name thanks to the Shona people’s long artisanal tradition of stone working, and Zimbabwe means “house of stone.” It is not just a metaphor, but blood, sweat, and tears. Stone sculpture was not a peculiarity that was ignited by colonial encounters as is commonly told. It was always there, through generations and traditions. It was just not yet classified in anthropological terms, or exhibited in the colonial museum.

As Guthrie explained, “This art form is not about the talent of somebody who does something with stone. It goes beyond that. It’s a family spirit. It’s a cultural spirit. And taking the totality of that person and putting it into a business environment and putting it into a marketing environment gives it a higher platform…”

The impetus for establishing Chapungu Sculpture Park was to harness a sense of community beyond the tokenistic and commercial aspects. Guthrie was interested in giving the artists space where they could work from. He sought the need for artists to be in a space where they could be creative and produce art free of distractions. Besides being a workspace for generations of artists, Chapungu Sculpture Park, is also a living museum. Guthrie’s collection of Zimbabwe stone sculpture is unparalleled not just in size and quality, but more importantly in its historic span, containing some of the finest pieces from the “first generation” to contemporary artists. It is the biggest private collection. No doubt, Guthrie established a lasting memorial to this astonishing artistic movement.

Further Reading


Lawrence Lemaoana is one of 13 South African artists selected by curator Daniella Géo for the exhibition “Reconstruções: arte contemporânea da África do Sul” [Reconstructions: Contemporary Art from South Africa] running until 15 May at the …