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The GAP Arts Summer Residencies - Little Wonder by Rumbidzai Savanhu

The third blog in our series focuses on the artist Rumbidzai Savanhu and her residency at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Sophie Culverwell
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Rumbidzai Savanhu at work

About the Artist

Rumbidzai Savanhu is a Zimbabwean born artist whose primary medium is digital. Her work is heavily influenced by art history, comics, film, and graphic design, and she combines these with her culture when creating work. Her culture is a huge influence on her work and how she approaches her use of colour, pattern and texture. She thinks representation is incredibly important, especially to a child because it shapes how you see the world and who you want to become.

Growing up she used art and stories to escape, but also to connect with the world. Creating narratives is a huge part of her artistic process. She wants people to see the story she is trying to tell through her art even when there are no words. She wants to inspire people to make their own stories and invite them to look at all the amazing things there are around them - no matter how small - and wander/wonder.

Rumbidzai’s Inspiration

Inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Studio Ghibli, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Rumbidzai used themes of imagination and child-like points of view to inspire her work. Using a play on the words ‘wandering’ and ‘wondering’ she created a story of a little child discovering a new world and playing in visual form. Often as we grow, we tend to forget about that inner child who wants to make up stories, the inner child that asks the important questions. What if little creatures stole my socks for blankets in the winter? What if those branches in the park were a portal to a fairy world? What if my dreams were a reality? Is this world real? Is it make-believe? Does it matter?


The first thing that Rumbidzai drew inspiration from was the flora and fauna of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, whether it was the flowers from the historic properties’ gardens or depicted in the collections of the Trust. When exploring the Trust’s library and archive she viewed The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts, a book which includes woodcuts of both real and mythological creatures. The book made her wonder what would a storyteller like William Shakespeare have dreamed about as a child? Would he have been told stories before he went to bed? Would he have had imaginary friends or found secret hiding places to invent stories when he was young?

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Sweet Bag 1560-1600

Sweet Bag

This purse or bag dates from the mid to late 16th century and is made of vibrant pink silk satin and embroidered with metal threads and sequins. This type of bag is commonly referred to as a ‘sweet bag’ as they were often used to carry sweet-smelling herbs and dried flowers that could be held under the nose to mask unpleasant odours and guard against ‘bad air’. Alternatively bags such as this were used to hold keepsakes and were also given as love tokens during courtship, usually with a small gift such as jewellery, money or perfume inside. The bag could be carried from the wrist or hung about the person where it could be prominently displayed as a symbol of courtship, or as a mark of high status.

Gentleman's Nightcap 1600-1625


This gentleman’s nightcap dates from the early 17th century. It is made from a single piece of linen that is delicately embroidered with roses, pansies and strawberries from coloured silks and silver-gilt thread. Nightcaps were worn for warmth in bed as there was a belief that they helped to regulate the temperature of the brain during sleep, and they were often recommended for use by the leading physicians of the day. However, they were also worn around the house in the evening once the work day was over and the time for relaxation had begun. The quality of material and level of decoration of nightcaps would vary according to use and the wearer’s social status. A person of low or middling wealth would likely have a plain wool or linen cap, whereas the wealthy would have made use of expensive materials. Due to the rich decoration on this nightcap it is more likely it was worn around the house rather than to sleep in.

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The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes 1607

The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes

Edward Topsells' book is the first comprehensive work on natural history. It includes woodcuts of animals which exist in the modern world but also fantastical/mythological creatures. The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes represents one way in which people of the past could ‘see’ animals which they would never have the opportunity to encounter in the flesh.

Over the years, this book has been an inspiration to many, merging the real with the fantastical not only in the art work but also in the plays of William Shakespeare. When the ghost of Banquo appears in Macbeth’s seat at the table in the ill-fated banquet scene, Macbeth is so frightened that he pleads with him to appear in any other form:

‘Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,

The arm'd rhinoceros, or th' Hyrcan tiger’

(Macbeth, Act 3 Scene 4).

But when Macbeth was first performed in 1606, how would an audience have known what an ‘arm’d rhinoceros’ looked like? The rhinoceros depicted in The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes was derived from an earlier woodcut by the German printmaker Albrect Dürer, who based his image on written descriptions of an Indian rhinoceros owned by the King of Portugal in 1515. He depicts the rhinoceros with hard plates that cover his body like sheets of patterned armour and a solid-looking breastplate and is reminiscent of Macbeth’s ‘arm’d rhinoceros’. Dürer’s rhinoceros became one of the most popular animal images throughout Europe and for the next 300 years illustrators continued to borrow from his woodcut.

The different forms of representation of nature - that William Shakespeare would have been familiar with - influenced the work of Rumbidzai Savanhu.

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Little Wonder

Rumbidzai Savanhu describes the experience of the residency ….

“I have always loved the work of Shakespeare, though I have often found it hard to engage with it. Throughout school I have tried to find ways of making it more accessible for me to understand, from playing Macbeth wink murder in class, to making costume designs for The Tempest for homework, to writing the backstory for the Capulet and Montague families for Romeo and Juliet. Even now I engage with it through film by watching three adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing in one night. These stories stand the test of time because they have the capacity to connect people no matter the format or medium whether it’s in the theatre, manga or 2000s teen adaptations.

This is why I was so excited to be a part of this residency. The residency has allowed me to revisit my love of Shakespeare whilst making art. Research always informs my outcomes so having access to the archives and revelling in the collections available at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has been amazing. Marvelling at the craftsmanship of the textiles and art and looking through books which are almost 500 years old with original binding, calligraphy and hand drawn illustrations, I couldn’t help but be in awe.

Looking through bestiaries and finding illustrations of rhinos alongside unicorns, I realised that back then the idea of the existence of a unicorn was just as plausible as a rhino. If shown to someone that had never seen either, and would possibly never get to, they would believe it to be true. This idea of what is real and what is make believe stuck with me when I started sketching and thinking of my idea.

My work has vastly improved by being a part of this residency and it has sparked my imagination and inspiration for future work.”

Rumbidzai Savabhu’s work will be on display at Shakespeare’s New Place until the end of the summer 2022. Find out more here.