Thomas Mukarobgwa

Article Projects
forebears, homeland, nature, tradition
Visual Arts (painting, sculpture)
Africa, Eastern
created on:
August 5, 2003
last changed on:
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Sculpting in Paint, Drawing in Sculpture

Thomas Mukarobgwa was born in 1924 in Nyanga, Zimbabwe. Mukarobgwa is widely regarded as the most versatile first generation artist of the so-called Workshop School, which was founded by Frank McEwen. He worked as a painter and sculptor, but earned his living as a gallery attendant at the National Gallery in Zimbabwe. Mukarobgwa died in 1999 in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Coming from the rural countryside and having received only limited school education, Mukarobgwa first came into contact with art in 1956 when he met Frank McEwen, the director of the National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe. McEwen directed the Workshop School at the National Art Gallery, and Mukarobgwa, employed as a gallery attendant, became one of the earliest members of the Workshop School. Initially working a a painter, he turned toward sculpture after 1962 and only began to paint again in the early 1990s. Mukarobgwa gained an international reputation as one of the most versatile talents of the first generation of Workshop School artists after Alfred Barr bought two of his paintings for the Museum of Modern Art in 1963, but he continued to work as a gallery attendant until his retirement in 1997. After his retirement, Mukarobgwa planned to spend the following years at his country home painting, but he passed away in 1999 in Harare, Zimbabwe.

His paintings and sculptures are inspired by the landscapes of his home and the spirits, ancestors, and stories of his Shona heritage. Mukarobgwa developed a thick, heavily modulated brushstroke in his paintings, using bright colors and bold contrasts. Often his compositions are structured around a simple, centrally located group of figures that were painted almost as silhouettes with little internal differentiation. These figures are embedded in landscapes that are portrayed in the most economic of ways by combining broad streaks of color with large areas of solid paint or patterns composed of little blotches or dots. Titles such as “Dying People in the Bush” (1962) or “Old Man Afraid to Cross” (1961) indicate the immediacy of lived experience, his interest in scenes that sprang from the reality surrounding him. Another work from that period, “View You See from a Tree” (1962), presents the swirling view of a tree branch spiraling upwards, and it seems like a wonderful metaphor for Mukarobgwa’s deep-seated grounding in the nature and landscape of the region as well as his unfettered curiosity to find new approaches to engage with the world.

While his paintings are structured entirely around bold color contrasts and thick contours of painterly material, Mukarobgwa’s sculptures acquire a rounder, more organic shape. Works like “Am I Too Heavy For You” or “Monkeys” (1968) present intricately carved and rounded stones, carved and detailed with utmost economy. Only the outlines, ridges, and creases necessary to understand the figure have been carved into the smooth surface, and the compositions of two or more figures in one sculpture only slowly offer themselves to the viewer.
Author: Christian Rattemeyer


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)