Thomas Mukarobgwa (1924–1999) was a Zimbabwean painter and sculptor who worked as a gallery attendant for much of his career. Thomas was also a musician who was at home with a number of the traditional instruments of the Shona people.
Mukarobgwa was born in 1924 in Nyanga, in the countryside of what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and had limited education. He is believed to have taken his first art classes with Ned Paterson at school in Salisbury (now Harare). With his interest in art piqued he met Frank McEwen, the newly appointed director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. McEwen hired him as a gallery attendant and gave him artistic materials, inviting him to join an art school which was then being formed in the basement of the museum. Mukarobgwa thus became one of the original members of what was to become known as the Workshop School. Mukarobgwa acted as a kind of gatekeeper for McEwen, finding young men to join the workshop who fitted into McEwen's preferred profile. In particular, McEwen preferred to have uneducated, pagans who could act as tabula rosa for his artistic training theories. Mukarobgwa seems to have trained those who did not fit this profile to pretend that they did and cover up various aspects of their backgrounds.
Thomas worked in domestic service as a waiter and for a bakery before joing the National Gallery in 1957, where he soon became head attendant, a post he held for a long while.
Mukarobgwa began his artistic career as a painter, and was one of McEwen's early standouts along with Joseph Ndandarika. He exhibited regularly in the early 1960s, and had four works acquired by MoMA in 1962, but turned towards sculpture as this medium took off amongst his peers; he returned to painting only in the early 1990s.
One of his sculptural works, called Spirit Bird carrying People was the 35c value in a set of postage stamps issued on 14 April 1988 to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the opening of the National Gallery. Mukarobgwa kept working as a gallery attendant until his retirement in 1997. He planned to devote his remaining years to painting at his country house, but he died in Harare before getting the chance.
Mukarobgwa's art was inspired by his native landscape and by the legends and culture of the Shona people, from whom he was descended. His compositions were simple, and frequently used bright colors and bold contrasts. His sculptures were generally more rounded and smooth, with minimal carving into their surfaces.
Thomas Mu as he was called, had a tremendous love and knowledge of local folk customs. In the atmosphere of the National Gallery, he soon began to put on canvas these stories. His work remains among the best local painting of that time. The next step was for Thomas, encouraged by Frank McEwen, to spend all his time attacking stone in the Workshop School of which he was a founder member. He was not afraid of the hardest stones and loved to carve semi-abstract figures, all of which had a story. In addition to this, Thomas was a musician who was at home with a number of the traditional instruments of the Shona people.
His creations have been purchased throughout the world and has had his work purchased by the Museum of Modern Art ‘New York’ and International Collectors. His work is highly sought after and collectable in today’s market place of Zimbabwean Sculpture.
- , ZimSculpt, Accessed: 25 August, 2020