Religion, together with race, politics and our place of birth, determine our culture or way of life. The National Gallery in Harare recently held a Culture Week, celebrating local, regional and international cultures. Part of the celebrations included an exhibition, Objects of Mediation, exploring the role of material objects such as drums, mbira, beadwork, clay pots, headrests and masks, from a number of African countries.

On the day I visited the gallery, a fresh-faced group of Grade 7 pupils from Chembira Primary School in Glen Norah were examining the exhibits. They listened intently as Ephraim Mwaita, an intern from Midlands State University, described artefacts from Nigeria, Zambia, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, explaining their use in ceremonies used to link the present to the spiritual world of the ancestors.

Indicating the half-man half-beast Monumental Figure from Ivory Coast, Mwaita said that Ivoirians would call upon it in times of trouble, and it would come alive and offer guidance to the faithful.
Mwaita also explained that the Shona did not employ masks or figures for communication, but made contact with their mudzimu (spirits of forefathers) through spirit mediums. A person would go into a trance, and the spirit would speak through him/her.

Wooden headrests were always the property of the father of the house, who was head of the family. The headrest provided a link during the night with the spirits, who spoke through dreams to offer advice and to give instructions. For this reason, the father always spoke with authority and was the decisionmaker in the family.

The pupils from Chembira Primary made copious notes, and will probably have many questions for their teacher, Mrs Chadzuka, when she introduces her next lesson on religious and moral education. School visits to repositories of culture such as art galleries and museums are vital in creating an awareness of heritage and identity, and in affirming a particular way of life.

The exhibition runs until August 31, 2012.

See related articles

“The Letter to God” exhibition at National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare (Dec 1-31)

National Gallery in Harare to celebrate early mission schools’ crafters