There are a lot of eyes watching

On the morning of April 29 2010 the dilapidated foyer of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe ­- vivified for the week by the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) — slowly filled up with the city’s aspiring filmmakers and video artists. They were preparing to embark on a film workshop downtown, an excursion during which they would take video footage of Harare’s public spaces.

This signalled a rare moment of leniency from the police. Ordinarily, photography or filming in the streets of Harare without police clearance comes with the risk of being arrested (or worse). Two days before, South African artists Daniel Halter, Gerald Machona and Stefan de Wet were detained and beaten at the Zanu PF headquarters for filming on a city rooftop. Local artists say such arrests happen frequently.

As the filmmakers waited, word arrived that their clearance to film had been retracted. No longer able to work in the city, they dispersed into the secured Hifa grounds — a whirligig of artificial culture and opulence — where they were allowed to film whatever they wished.

Launched in 1999, Hifa is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest arts events, a remarkable feat for a country whose economy has been in collapse for a large part of the festival’s lifespan. Hifa is funded almost entirely by European embassies and corporate investors and, accordingly, the most prominent musical and theatre events are imported.

Take this year’s opening event, for instance: a histrionic rendition of Carl Orff’s choral cantata Carmina Burana, accented by a performance by the Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus. Some of the choristers and additional dancers were drawn from Zimbabwe, but besides this, Hifa’s grand opening seemed out of step with contemporary Zimbabwe and its artists.

This year’s theme, “About Face”, was, according to Hifa director Manuel Bagorro, meant to reflect a moment of evaluation and change in Zimbabwe’s culture industry. It was supposed, one assumes, to reflect whatever exists of a gradual transformation since the establishment of the coalition government. Yet this glimmer of progress is unapparent in the testimonies of so many local artists whose careers entail a constant struggle against censorship.

Just two weeks prior to Hifa a photography exhibition held at an art gallery was closed down by police the day after it was opened by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Police had attempted to halt the opening, and confiscated photographs depicting acts of violence during Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections.

Shortly after this, the police raided an exhibition held at the Bulawayo Art Gallery, confiscated several artworks and arrested the curator. This exhibition of paintings, graffiti and archival material commemorated the anniversary of the 1987 Gukurahundi Massacre, a politically driven genocide in which approximately 20 000 Zimbabweans were killed by the Zimbabwe Africa National Union led by Robert Mugabe.

Even in this climate, though, progress cannot be halted and, this year, the festival launched its first-ever visual arts exhibition at the National Gallery. With sarcasm, one young artist said that he found opportunity to create even with the government’s scorn for the arts: “We can find ways of saying things,” he said. “The great thing about our system is that they have no eye for art.”

Yet in a public forum famed Zimbabwean poet Chirikure Chirikure said: “There are a lot of eyes watching” — even within Hifa grounds, he warned. “Real things happen, ugly things. This drives fear into artists. At the same time, fear is driven into the community as a form of control. There is self-censorship. You are worried you might go a little too far and get thrown into prison.”

On the evening after their arrest and eventual release I met with Halter, Machona and de Wet to hear their story. But as we began to talk we were warned independently by three Zimbabwean colleagues (all of whom asked to be kept anonymous) not to discuss the arrest on Hifa grounds, because the artists were at great risk of being re-arrested by plain-clothes Central Intelligence Organisation officers who were patrolling Hifa in force. We had to wait until we met up a few days later in Johannesburg to talk freely.

The scenario is bleak indeed, and I am not convinced that Hifa promises any real improvement for Zimbabwean artists. However, with foreign journalists being granted access to Hifa openly this year for the first time, one hopes that the event will at least become a catalyst for exposing how the basic rights of cultural workers in Zimbabwe are so thoroughly denied.

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