US artists illuminate sacred Nharira Hills

The artwork titled Zuva, which means sun in the Shona language

FROM the highway, it looks like a yellow orb that fell out of the sky and landed in a field on the hillside.

If by chance somebody actually stopped to gaze across the fields towards the All-Africa Village nestled in Nharira Hills situated in Norton, some 38km southwest of Harare, one has little choice but to be amazed.

Many drivers speeding down the stretch of the highway between Norton and Harare hardly have time to view the marvel, except for locals.

Residents of this area walking from the main road toward Stonehurst Farm each day cannot help but stare at the colourful structure that imposingly stands out against the earthy hues of the rocky landscape.

The artwork is titled Zuva, which means sun in the Shona language, and can also be translated as day.

The yellow colour of the artwork may be said to represent the sun, although sunrise and sunset in Zimbabwe are typically golden.

Internationally renowned Chicago-based artist couple, Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero, together known as Luftwerk, were the creators of the orb at Stonehurst Farm.

It was the first time for both artists to visit the country and Africa making it their first work on the continent.

The project was realised through collaboration between CTG Collective and a local institution Dzimbanhete Arts Interactions (DAI).

Zuva boldly stands, making an emphatic statement in an area that is beset with conflict.

There are sustained tensions between indigenous locals and powerful companies as the former struggles to preserve their cultural heritage and way of life amid an onslaught by capitalist extractive interests.

In recent years, a paper mill was built in the area, raising concern from locals about the release of toxins into the soil and a nearby stream that feeds Harare’s main raw water supply dam, Lake Chivero.

Other companies have moved into the area with machinery and started quarry mining.

The community now lives on the edge of industrial developments that threaten its existence and undermines its cultural values and spiritual wellbeing.

The artwork itself might also eventually fall under a bulldozer when the next eviction letter is served.

The quarry mines feed the unquenchable appetite of the construction business in a developing country.

Indigenous religion never required people to build places of worship, but these hills are holy sanctuaries that can be considered to be as important as cathedrals and temples.

Appeals to government authorities having failed to secure intervention, locals can only watch despondently as the revered hills are turned into a strange jagged landscape.

Founder and director of DAI, Chikonzero Chazunguza laments that the institution which preserves material culture does not help it thrive.

Painfully, the National Museums and Monuments Act that protects rock paintings and gravesites does not protect intangible aspects of the culture.

Referring to Lufthwerk, an affiliate website, states: “In each project, they draw from the surrounding environment to interpret and expand on the context of the site.”

Zuva is an interactive piece, with a bench people can sit on outside, and space they can enter inside.

The yellow colour of the structure is meant to represent the sun, while the blue represents night. The attractive saturated colours draw people.

Lufthwerk is known for doing work with light installations, in this case the major light is the abundant sunlight outside.

Inside the architectural artwork, there are led lights that create the impression of aurora on the painted concave ceiling, and also illuminate the windowless interior.

The light is powered by a solar installation. The American duo designed the structure and construction involved paid labour from the local community.

The dome structure, with a loop takes the form of an inverted comma.

It was inspired by the Zezuru kitchen hut, but reassigns the bench (which would ordinarily be inside) by placing it outside for a different purpose that could be to watch the sun set, and other circular functions.

Nharira Hills falls under Zvimba district, and the spiritual guardianship of Sekuru Mushore of the Moyo totem and Nyamweda family, who hails from Mhondoro.

Like the famous Matobo Hills in the Matabeleland region, these revered hills harbour sacred caves that also serve as sacred burial grounds.

In past times, such places provided shelter in times of conflict, and would be useful for mounting a sustainable defence against attackers in a war.

Over many generations, spiritual leaders have used these spaces to conduct important religious ceremonies and perform rituals to communicate with Musikavanhu (the Creator) on behalf of the people.

Legend has it that in Nharira Hills, there are ancient pathways on which grass never grows.

Depending on the time and season, ancient pilgrims can be seen walking along these pathways leading to the old shrines.

Traditional beliefs hold that such things are only revealed to people of the right totem, for a particular reason, and in the right season.

The Zuva piece was conceived as a reflection of modernised African architecture.

With its dome structure and cavern interior, it can also be seen as a modern cave and alternative for the future.

Its dark gaping entryway mirrors the front of a cave. The extended wall leading away from the entrance simulates a long passage leading to the well.

New York-born Gallero was quoted saying: “We have our own narrative and we always respond to the existing narrative of the place.”

Bachmaier, who was born in Munich, Germany, describes the main intention behind their practice as “... transforming people’s perception of the space and environment they are in.’’

Land art can be controversial when it involves outsiders, and might be seen as disregarding indigenous people’s rights and beliefs.

On Stonehurst Farm, Zuva is a benign intervention that does not invoke the spectre of a future in which the land is scarred and poisoned.

There is no collateral damage due to loss of identity, and risk to health and livelihood. The work involved in creating the sculpture provided employment for the locals.

A solar inverter which provides power for the lighting inside the artwork, will also benefit the community by literally bringing light to their lives and powering a water pump for a borehole.

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