HAS ART BECOME A VICTIM OF SHRINKING DEMOCRATIC SPACES IN ZIMBABWE?
In March 2010 Bulawayo visual artist Owen Maseko put up a solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Bulawayo and called it Sibathontisele. This means let’s drip on them in IsiNdebele. The title of the exhibition is an allusion to blood and the form of torture using burning plastic that was experienced by many Ndebele people during the Gukuhundi atrocities of the 80s. Although Sibathontisele was not Owen Maseko’s first solo exhibition it is the one that the artist is now well known for.
The exhibition started as a noble idea to push the agenda of national healing, reconciliation and integration into public spaces. However, it was misinterpreted by authorities as an arts project intent on undermining peace and state security by sowing seeds of division. It was immediately banned and the artist detained for several days in a police cell. And since March 2010 the artist has been waiting trial after challenging his arrest at the highest court of law, the Supreme Court. Strangely, Owen Maseko is not on trial for contravening the censorship act but a higher crime of undermining the President’s authority under the Public Order and Security Act.
Another interesting dimension is that soon after the banning of the exhibition and the arrest of Owen Maseko there was a media frenzy that ended up re-christening the exhibition from Sibathothisele to Gukurahundi Exhibition and consequently Owen Maseko became known as the Gukuragundi artist, whatever that is. This re-Christening of the exhibition made it more a political statement or event rather than a work of art. In simple terms the exhibition became political and thus the artist now stands on trial rather for his assumed political thoughts and not for his artistic work. It is sad that Owen Makeso is now being defined by one painting or a single exhibition wherever he goes? But an artist cannot be defined by a single work. That would be unjust.
Owen Maseko’s exhibition has been accused of lacking subtleness. “It was too direct,” many have said. But Zenzele Ndebele, a producer of the documentary Gukurahundi and one artist who stood by Owen Maseko through thin and thick disagrees.
“It’s not fair to say Owen’s work was too direct. There should be no taboo subjects for artists. Artists must be free to tackle any subject of their choice and, in any case, healing starts with telling the truth. All Owen did with his exhibition was to tell the truth. Gukurahundi happened. That’s a truth. An undeniable fact.”
Although Zenzele himself was not arrested for his documentary that touched on the same subject as Owen’s exhibition he claims to have been harassed and intimidated several times. “I got phone calls in the middle of the night. I was threatened. But what was worse for me was ordinary people and fellow artists accusing me of seeking attention, inviting controversy so as to get asylum abroad or attract western donors.” The same accusation has been thrown at Maseko and other artists that have tackled sensitive issues of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. “People can say anything they want but they must know that people don’t always do things for money, fame or asylum in the UK or Europe,” said Ndebele.
The arrest of Owen Maseko and the resultant closure of his exhibition has been a serious assault on Bulawayo’s creative fibre. The closing down of part of the gallery has had serious effects on the visual arts sector. Here are some of the consequences:
1. Within a month the Looking to the Future statue which had found home at the gallery was pulled down and thrown into some dark room as it was suddenly deemed offensive by authorities.
2. The bottom gallery that hosted Owen’s exhibition was closed indefinitely. Even today, 2 years later, this part of the gallery is still closed.
3. The incident exposed the fragmentation and lack of solidarity among arts associations, unions and national bodies meant to protect artists.
4. It also exposed the absence or lack of emergency support systems for artists, particularly when they get into trouble with the law.
5. It led to serious self- censorship and fear of the unknown consequently leading to a period of reduced creativity.
6. The closure of part of the gallery resulted in many artists failing to exhibit and consequently losing potential income.
7. It also led to the tightening of exhibition rules/procedures at the gallery.
8. It also meant many artists have to move and look for alternative spaces to exhibit their work away from the gallery.
9. The artist Owen Maseko has been denied solo exhibition space and fears that his name has been tainted.
Two years after the closure of Maseko’s exhibition the gallery space is still closed and many artists have no clue why it is so. “They took pictures. Took all evidence they wanted. There are no reasons why the gallery is still closed. It’s just a way of demonstrating power and an effort to bully all artists into silence. Artists don’t know what is safe anymore. They are afraid.”
Perhaps this is true. When Owen Maseko’s troubles began the Visual Arts Association of Bulawayo (VAAB) said nothing. They failed to even issue a statement in support of their member. Almost two years later the association hasn’t said anything. “VAAB hasn’t done anything. It can’t do anything,” lamented one artist. The same can be said for the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe and the National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe. Maybe their silence stems from the fact that the two are quasi-government bodies and cannot say anything against the government.