/ 15 September 2006

Self-censored: Zimbabwe’s artists

It is difficult to find a politically outspoken artist in Zimbabwe. Almost as hard as trying to locate a garage with steady fuel supplies, a bearer cheque that holds its value or an honourable politician. But unlike the vagaries of the country’s currency, creative expression has an uncanny tenacity that allows it to grow under the most trying circumstances.

Zimbabwe’s economic environment makes it difficult for artists simply to function as artists. Aside from being expensive, materials are difficult to come by and most artists stick to small or medium formats to keep their costs down, opting for neutral subject matter that is easy to sell in the country’s diminished market. Politics, unsurprisingly, also plays a hampering role.

Knowing this I was still surprised, when I visited a recent group exhibition of Zimbabwean artists in Johannesburg, at just how little social commentary the pieces conveyed. True, the stated aim of the exhibition was not political, but to see the country through that lens was to see the land as a soothing oasis of pastoral life, rolling hills and endless wildlife — if I thought it was true, I would move there tomorrow.

This criticism is shared by at least some Zimbabwean creatives. Controversial playwright Cont Mhlanga told Worldpress.org earlier this year: “With a society such as ours, which is suppressed and depressed, artists should be the voice of reason, the conscience of society. For me, artists in Zimbabwe are not reflective of the problems in society and that is why it has taken so long to solve them.”

It is a sentiment that curator Raphael Chikukwa feels strongly about. In 2003, at the height of political tension when the government was vehemently stomping out dissident voices, he held Visions of Zimbabwe, an exhibition of outspoken work, in the United Kingdom. A collection that, he says, would have been impossible to show on home soil. “It was a chance to give a voice to the voiceless and educate the First World about Zimbabwe,” says Chikukwa.

Yet he still feels that artists should be more critical and fight for freedom of expression from their home turf.

“Why are we sitting down? Why are we folding our arms?” he asks. “If you are living in a society where people are suffering, you have to comment on that. So many people are just trying to get their bread and butter, crossing the border to sell their art at Greenmarket Square and Rosebank [rooftop market]. Artists are reduced to that, but it is work for economic salvation. It is not art. It is good décor, you can match it to your curtains.

“Even those who speak out become self-censored. There are a lot of disgruntled artists in this place. We are crying for freedom, freedom of expression. If artists are locked out then we become the opposition. During the liberation struggle, artists were used: ‘Go and dance [and we will give you] a bun and a Coke.'” Now those same voices, he says, are being quashed. “We aren’t against the government. We are against the system they impose and we should be given a platform against that system. We need to get our priorities right as a nation, especially those in power. It has been a long-haul flight. We have been in it for too long now and we are jetlagged.”

Bulawayo-based Owen Maseko is one artist who has pushed through the fear barrier to exhibit controversial works from his home city. In one installation he built a toilet cubicle spattered with political graffiti and commentary — the message being that it is only in the toilet that anyone has the freedom to express themselves.

In another work entitled One Fool at a Time, he shows a group of people clamouring on a single toilet seat — with a similar message being that when living in a Big Brother environment there is no room for privacy.

“People said I was crazy, but the fear only gripped me in 2003, when the political tension was really high. I was followed around by the police for a while. It was fear, but it was also strength. I see that it was an opportunity to put myself in an experimental situation and it became a growth thing. As an artist [in Zimbabwe] we always have fear, but here I am, I’m still around.”

He introduces me to fellow artists Charles Nkomo, Khumbalini Mpofu, Bkezelo Mlilo, who all work from studios at the Bulawayo National Gallery, and the conversation turns to economics.

“Generally, anyone who gets the opportunity [to leave the country] goes,” they tell me. “The few of us who are left are trying. Those who made a name for themselves before the bad times are lucky. It is unfortunate for people trying to make a name for themselves now.”

“There are three classes in Zimbabwe: rich, poor and surviving — the surviving class is becoming the dominant class,” says Maseko. “We always say if you can survive in Zimbabwe, you can survive anywhere in the world.”

For many artists survival means selling over the internet or through South African galleries or flea markets. With the demise of tourism and a climate of hyper-inflation, the local market is a barely viable means of making a living.

“The problem with selling work in Zimbabwe is that you sell today, but by the time the cheque has cleared you have lost 20% of the work’s value,” says Harare-based painter Pip Curling.

Aside from selling her own work, Curling represents naive artists Mishek Gudo and Foni Kofi, who work from a gazebo in her garden.

It is the work of these artists that seems to best embody a gentle resilience that is apparent among the majority of Zimbabweans I meet. They are the quiet voices that offer a window on an enduring source of faith — that in the long run, human truth will win over political blindness.

One of Gudo’s mythical whimsical pieces, Greed, features an owl with an uncanny likeness to President Robert Mugabe. “[My work is based on] stories I used to hear from my grandparents, [but] some of these things are happening right now,” he says.

The traditional story behind the painting is that the owl was greedy and demanded food from the other animals until one bird refused and discovered the owl’s horns were only ears. The animals fought the owl, which is why it now hides during the day and moves around at night.

Similarly, Kofi’s joyful, geometric paintings carry a simple source of strength. The proverbs in his works teach that “every conquerer has his conquerer”, “he who eats fire vomits the embers” and “even leaders should be humble”.