Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Alone with Strangers

So last week 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. An architect by the name of Herbert Baker, was commissioned by Rhodes to restore the house.

The history, the people who had stayed in the house and the antique in the house was all well fascinating, but my main interest on that day was in the Zimbabwe stone bird that was, as one of my tour partners on the day Kirsty Cockerill put it, 'nicked' from Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo. Great Zimbabwe is one of the most important archaeological site in sub-saharan Africa. I also found out during the tour that a number of  decorative motif of the stone bird are found throughout the house.

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

My interest in the bird goes long back when l was a young, seeing the stylized version of one of bird on the coins or on our national flag. Later on in school, I further learned more about it in the history lessons and of the great Mutapa and Rozvi states. Then in 2003, news of one portion of one of the birds returning to the country from a German museum was all over the Zimbabwe TV (ZBC), and there was a full live broadcast of the reunification ceremony that I watched attentively as President R.G Mugabe received it from the Germans. When I was a student in art, archaeology and cultural heritage at Midlands State University in Gweru, Zimbabwe, my knowledge and interest in both Great Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe stone birds was further enhanced. In addition, one of my lectures, Prof. Ashton Sinamai, was an archaeologist who had previously been the curator of archaeology at  Great Zimbabwe, and he shared valuable information about the site and its history during our lectures.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe holds the lower portion of the ancient stone sculpture the "Zimbabwe Bird" at a ceremony inZimbabwe 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 Wednesday the carved base of the "Zimbabwe Bird" that has spent on near 100 years in the hands of European collectors and museums. Associated Press

Anyway, back to my story on my visit to Groote Schuur. One of our last stops before the tour ended was in Rhodes bedroom where we found the only stone bird not in the country. Isolated and taken out of its cultural context, it was stuffed on top of a cabinet whose inside was filled with artifacts that Rhodes and his associates plundered during their conquest of Zimbabwe in the 1890s.

One of the Great Zimbabwe bird at Groote Schuur (25 July 2014)
So how did this bird end up in South Africa. A hunter by the name of Willie Posselt took 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 local Shona living in the area, he cut one of them from its column and stored the rest “in a secure place”. This bird he later sold to Cecil Rhodes and it has remained as
part of the estate of 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 of the events on how this and other birds left the country in Edward Matenga's 2011 dissertation '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 as part of the 'Scramble for Africa' and sent out a team of archaeologists Theodore Bent and Richard Hall to carried out unsystematic excavations at Great Zimbabwe so as to prove that the site was Semitic, as it was during a time that  'a great deal of romance and idealism had been created around the existence of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, whose origin was credited to everybody other than the
indigenous inhabitants  - the Sabaeans, Phoenicians, Hebrews or Egyptians.' (Matenga, 2011) Bent took the rest of the birds form the site  and took them to a museum in Cape Town (now Iziko) where they would start the journey of moving throughout Europe.

Display of replicas of the Zimbabwe Birds at Iziko Museum, Cape Town
As an artist, I am amazed at the creative and technical skills of these old masters who created these magnificent pieces of art. In my 2009 thesis, I wrote '....the earliest manifestations of a visual culture in Zimbabwe are seen in the architecture, rock painting and the Great Zimbabwe birds... (Winter-Irving; 1991:18). 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 used the image of the stone birds in my artwork as a symbol of my Shona identity and of being Zimbabwean. In 2012, I had an image of the bird as part of my panting titled 'The Surgeon'. Then last year (2013)  I created a series of drawing (below) that have converted a wall in my apartment into a sacred wall. The drawing are interpretations of the real stone birds that I had seen (i.e the seven birds which were returned from South Africa in 1981) in the site museum at Great Zimbabwe on my last visit to the site, and now having seen the eight at Groote Schuur. In future, I would want to approach the museum to allow me access to the birds to further create drawing of the stone birds in real life.   
Shiri dzeDzimba dzemabwe, 2013, Charcoal on paper (artist collection)                     Click on image to enlarge

The drawings of the stone birds on my now 'sacred wall' in my apartment                      Click on image to enlarge

So when will this bird ever go back to its home in Zimbabwe. I see it taking a while, with all the complications of restitution and repatriation, international convention on the return of stolen cultural property, bilateral talks etc. I think  Zimbabwean citizens must now take a stand and request the return of one of this iconic artwork. Maybe start a 'Return our Bird Campaign', or a petition for the Return of the Stone Bird and it reunification with the rest" in the same fashion as how the Greeks have started a petition to for the "Return of the Parthenon Sculptures and the Reunification of the Monument"  (

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)