For just one week, censors turn a blind eye to the risqué Harare International Festival of the Arts that brings in good press – and cash.
This week, an audience watched as Mbuya Nehanda, the iconic matriarch of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence, was made to switch genders as she travelled through time.
For one week in a year, Zimbabwe’s artistic community gets temporary licence to challenge taboos and push the protest boundaries.
And amid the endless political dramas playing out in the country, the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) offers temporary escape with its mixed fare of irreverent plays, oddball art and alternative music from around the world.
Much of it is commentary on Zimbabwe’s political and social landscape, and the tools that artists are using to get their messages across would normally attract the ire of authorities, who still maintain a leash on protest art.
But during Hifa week, artists rush to break as many taboos as they can. The results are often surreal. Playwright Blessing Hungwe’s Lovers in Time, for instance, prods many taboos in its exploration of modern Zimbabwe and its latent racial tensions.
Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi are spiritual icons of Zimbabwe’s struggle, hanged over a century ago by white settlers. And yet, there they are in Hungwe’s play, travelling in time to modern Zimbabwe, controversially switching genders as they go.
The play is meant to be a critical look at present-day Zimbabwe and how it still struggles with its revolutionary past, according to Hungwe. But this is the sort of taboo-busting that is always going to attract criticism.
Television producer Clive Mandizha describes the play as “distasteful and insensitive”. “Nothing justifies their murder, and if Hungwe wants to make a clown out of himself, he can buy a jumpsuit, but not undermine what Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi represent,” Mandizha says.
One of the play’s lead actors, Pauline Gundidza, says taboos must be pushed to bring out the issues that, outside theatre, are usually left untouched. “It is a bold move to be taking on such a sensitive story and making it into a tale of a possibility of reconciliation – the race issues are still a huge taboo in Zimbabwe,” Gundidza says.
Lowered censorship bar
The government has previously banned plays it deemed inappropriate. Decisions on what art Zimbabwean audiences can see are made by the Censorship Board, a state body that is headed by Heyi Malaba, who – at age 93 – represents the government’s refusal to break with the past and allow free expression.
It is a mystery even to artists why the government does lower the censorship bar for Hifa, but it is most likely because the festival attracts tourism dollars, and loads of good press.
“For the week, the world press that covers us gets to report on the side they usually ignore; that, despite all our problems, it’s not half as bad as it’s painted here, and that Zimbabweans do lead normal lives,” says visual artiste Darikai Chinouriri, whose risqué art – some of it featuring nudity, another taboo – is featured at the National Gallery as part of the festival.
Still, festival organisers have had to overcome resistance and poor funding to put on the show. “If ever there was a year that I felt we were going to have to postpone Hifa, it was this one. The festival has been struggling to survive,” says Hifa’s executive director Maria Wilson.
Yet the show still opened on Tuesday night before a rare multiracial audience that contrasted with the country’s racial divisions. On stage was a medley of acts that included local hip-hop artists, European gymnasts, fire eaters, and Steve Dyer playing Weather Report’s Birdland to the accompaniment of a children’s choir.
Like many things in Zimbabwe these days, the opening night got a bit confusing. One moment Oliver Mtukudzi was playing, and the next, large screens were showing videos of a dung beetle.
“It is a compelling set that narrates and tells of the repeated determined attempts of two dung beetles to scale the heights of a rock with their precarious cargo while the concept resonates with the continued quest and search for enlightenment within Zimbabwe’s artistic community,” Hifa’s notes read.
And somewhere in the hodgepodge of dung beetles, cross-gender liberation icons, stand-up comics and jazz, is an escape route from Zimbabwe’s standard fare of party politics and economic decline – even if just for a week.