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Stone carvings and the talent of African artists

African stone sculptures have truly made their mark on the international art scene. These hand-carved, highly stylised artworks have gained notoriety and worldwide acclaim. They have become sought-after by collectors, galleries and people looking to bring a touch of the African spirit into their spaces. Among the many styles of stone carving, Zimbabwean artists have stamped their authority as the continental leaders in the genre.

These carvings are all handcrafted from solid rocks and the skill of the creator is often only appreciated in-person. The artists use various tools and techniques to create different details, textures and sheens from a single substrate. Smooth surfaces appear glossy and polished while rough textures remain matte and raw. All of the rocks are sourced locally and the various mineral compositions of each stone give the sculpture unique colours and patterns.

Artists prefer to carve their creations from hard rocks. These are less brittle and have an extremely fine grain, which allows the sculptors to create smooth, shiny surfaces without cracking the stone. Leopard rock, granite, soapstone and serpentinite are among the most favoured stones used. Softer rocks such as sandstone and glitter stone are too soft to be used.

How are the stone carvings created?

The process of creating these stylistic carvings is quite time-consuming and takes a lot of physical exertion. This labour is not always appreciated by viewers, so here is a breakdown of how stone carvings are made. It begins with the raw stone. The artists often take inspiration from the shape of the rock, rather than having a preconceived idea of what they want to create. The shape, colour and texture of the raw stone will help the artists to decide what to create.

They start by marking out the basic shape of their sculpture with charcoal. The artist then uses a hammer and chisel to chip away at the rock and create the fundamental shape. A chasing hammer (like a chisel with teeth) is used to give the surface of the stone a rough, raked appearance. For finer details and smooth surfaces, the artist tends to use a power-grinder or handheld steel rasp.

Once the shape is complete, the artist then washes the stone to remove small rock chips and dust. For polished surfaces, a series of wet and dry sandpapers are used to smooth the surface, starting from a coarse grain and working down to a fine grain. The smooth surfaces are then coated with heated wax and floor polish. This is buffed with a dry cloth to create a glossy appearance and reveal a greater depth of colour within the stone.

Maintenance is advised during ownership of a stone carving

Although these beautiful artworks are created from natural elements that have sat outside for millions of years, they may still need some maintenance to keep them looking new. Stone carvings are easy to maintain and they do not weather too badly if left outside. They may occasionally need a polish or buff, especially on the smooth surfaces if the wax washes off. A light dusting, followed by a coat of floor polish usually does the trick. Be sure to remove any dirt or stains from the surface before applying the polish.

Just two minutes of polishing and buffing is enough to restore the sheen of the rock and reveal the deep colours and patterns of the rock. If you do not own floor polish, then natural wax will suffice, such as beeswax. For the rough surfaces, use a damp cloth and brush to remove dust, cobwebs and dirt. These maintenance processes only need to be carried out once a year or so. A good way to tell if the stone needs attention is to wet the surface; if it looks shiny and there is a visible difference in appearance, then a coat of polish will be needed.

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Written by Joshua Oates

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