Somewhere in the mishmash that is the roster of the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa), which ended last Sunday, Zimbabwe’s little ambiguities were showing. For one week each year, anti-Robert Mugabe artists get to binge on an uninterrupted flow of protest theatre.
For a few days, all manner of rights groups, including gay rights, get to come out — if only by keeping the thinnest of veils over their work. And, at least for a few days, we get to see white people in central Harare.
Then, when the fireworks that traditionally end the festival die down, everything goes back to normal; whites return to their enclaves and the façade of racial harmony drops, while rights activists return to the safety of their internet forums. But, for a week, everyone would have had their chance to play pretend.
Art has long been used as a form of protest in Zimbabwe, but the sharpness had been somewhat blunted by the unity government. Now with that deal faltering, the festival gave an opportunity to take shots, while still convincing audiences that things were getting better, slowly.
Ahead of the festival, organisers said Hifa “has come to be seen as an important symbol of something positive about Zimbabwe, unifying socially and culturally disparate groups … at a time of ideological conflict and political uncertainty [and] bringing huge audiences together to celebrate something positive — the healing and constructive capacity of the arts”.
And how does the festival go about doing this? With a wild schedule; this year’s edition swung from the ridiculously abstract opening-night opera concert, to the nude pictures hanging in the National Art Gallery as well as openly anti-establishment plays.
Somewhere in this whole jungle, Hifa was driving home its theme, “About Face”. Zimbabwe was turning, slowly, but turning anyway, even when nothing made any sense at all, like the abstract opening night concert, a staging of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a mix of constantly changing lights, singing and dancing. This was presented by Spanish company La Fura dels Baus that produced the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Zimbabwe isn’t exactly opera country, or attuned to recitals of contemporary European classics, and so there were hundreds of blank stares at the stage, well into the show. Who could easily get this? Ballet dancers, caked in ash in one scene and hurling down bottles of whisky in the next, then writhing like shadows in the throbbing stage lights. Men solemnly carrying a prostrate woman atop long fiery pylons through the audience, as though it was some B-grade 1980s occult film.
All this to the accompaniment of relentless wailing from two tenors, a soprano and a 100-piece choir.
The concert, according to a festival brief, was based on a collection of poems “telling of the wheel of fortune as we move through the turbulent times of our lives”.
That theme of constant change and renewal ran through much of the work at the festival, but it was the openly critical plays that drew the biggest crowds, and showed the many faces of Zimbabwe.
One would never have believed that, just weeks before the festival, police had cracked down on protest artists, seizing paintings and photographs from art galleries.
Daves Guzha, a producer and actor, turned heads with a play called Protest that showcased the talented South African actor Mncedisi Shabangu. It told the story of two artists: one jailed for opposing a dictatorship, and the other promoted for compromising with the regime. It was an interpretation of a play written by the former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, but it was one that played to knowing nods from local art buffs who have often had to tone down their work to keep out of jail.
Then there was GPA, a sex-laden take on the coalition government. GPA normally refers to the Global Political Agreement, the deal that gave Zimbabwe the unity government. But Patience Tawengwa and director Mandisi Gobodi presented their “General Purpose Affiliations”, in which three sex-starved leaders discuss threesomes, arguing about who gets to have sex with a woman first. Nobody missed the point.
There was more. The woman who didn’t belong to a political party, by playwright Raisedon Baya, is a take on the hanging of Mbuya Nehanda, the woman who led Zimbabwe’s first Chimurenga uprising in 1898. It premiered on April 28, the anniversary of her hanging. But it dwelt more on how the new generation of revolutionaries were later to betray her sacrifice.
And then, in Election Day, there was the comical sight of a made-up African leader, resisting the begging of his wife to leave the country as a vote count showed he was heading for defeat. There were even twists of Shakespeare, with a Shona interpretation of Hamlet, Kupenga kwaHamlet (Hamlet’s insanity), which played to knowing winks and nudges.