Three weeks ago, I was invited by a South-African NGO called the Arterial Network on a “sponsored cultural tour [for African journalists] to the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa).” During my five-day stay at the Zimbabwean capital, several truths about both the Arterial Network and the hosting country began to unfold, divulging a duplicitous world laden with contradictions, subjugation and lies.
On day three, we met up with feted Zimbabwean poet Chirikure Chirikure who gave us a quick roundup of the current state of the art scene.
According to Chirikure, the slight improvements brought by the election of the new coalition government last year have, theoretically, given artists some limited space for expression. “Artists are now waiting to see where the government is taking them,” he said. “The new dilemma Zimbabwean artists are faced with is this: Should they be a mirror of their society or its critics?”
When it comes to visual arts though, the government doesn’t appear to be as tolerant. A couple of weeks before the inauguration of Hifa, the police raided a photography exhibit, confiscating a group of photos depicting the violence that marred the 2008 presidential elections.
A few days later, the police stormed into another exhibition held at the Bulawayo Art Gallery and arrested the curator. The exhibition contained paintings, graffiti and other material commemorating the anniversary of the Gukurahundi, a massacre carried out by Mugabi in 1987 against supporters of Joshua Nkomo, the founding father of nationalist struggle for independence in Zimbabwe. Approximately 20,000 civilians were murdered in the conflict.
"Real things happen, ugly things,” Chirikure said. “Fear is always sent by the government. There’s self-censorship. Artists are afraid for their families. Eventually, you learn to express yourself, to criticize, in a very subtle way.”
After the Chirikure discussion, we were scheduled to meet, yet again, with another governmental official, which seemed both ironic and unnerving particularly after this talk. And thus, me and Anthea Buys, the South African art critic of Mail & Guardian, decided to skip the meeting and, as any regular reporter would do, check the festival’s numerous activities.
The art of Hifa
In between this hustle, I was fortunate to see some truly remarkable art inside the Hifa grounds. The most outstanding artwork I saw in there was an installation titled “14 Ways to Remember” by Johannesburg-based artist Tashinga Gondo. The installation was part of a large exhibition curated by London-based Zimbabwean artist James Wright and held at the modest National Gallery of Zimbabwe.
The installation was composed of clothes, text, memorabilia and icons, all belonging to Gondo’s deceased brother. A poignant, heartbreaking commemorative to the artist’s late brother, “14 Ways to Remember,” each item represents a different side of Gondo’s brother, each carries a certain memory; all are parts of a large picture of a man so fondly remembered by his grieving sister.
The best thing I saw in Hifa was “You Cannot Escape Our Love,” a theatrical production produced by the Fourth World Productions.
The play opens with an investigation between a Zimbabwean/British criminal court officer and a Zimbabwean war criminal. The heated confrontation between the two probes the concept of the punishment, or the rather the futility of it. Both the audiences, and the pair, are confronted with a number of demanding questions: Can an admission of guilt undo the crime? Can a punishment, no matter how severe it is, ease the pain of the victims?
The next scene takes an acute detour. The actors, all of whom are black African-Brits, face up to the demands of their white British director, who shapes the story according to western stereotypes of villains and victims. And thus, the play forces the viewers to confront their own perceptions of these characters and what they represent.
Employing a variety of narrative tricks and shattering the fourth wall at several intervals of the play, “You Cannot Escape Our Love” is easily the most thought-provoking and original theater piece I’ve seen in a long time; a great example of the thriving African theater.
Revelations and banishment
An hour later, our paths crossed with a drunken artist who cast a shadow of doubt over Dominic Benhura, the formidable Zimbabwean sculptor we met on day two. The artist indicated how peculiar it is that Benhura has won the National Merit Award so many times. He claimed that one reason behind Benhura’s winning streak is that artists are required to pay a $200 admission fee to be eligible for the award, a fee most artists cannot afford.
Another curator told me that Benhura’s work is strangely apolitical and that his reluctance to take commissions from the artists he hosts at his art sanctuary is not quite the selfless, charitable feat he, and the Arterial Network, make it out to be.
The next day, I was astounded to learn that Anthea Buys’ trip had abruptly come to end. Mike van Graan, the Arterial Network founder, informed Buys that the network “wasn’t satisfied with her participation” in the activities of the tour and ordered her to leave immediately.
I went to express my disgruntlement over Buys’ expulsion to Belisa Rodrigues, general manager of the Network, but she didn’t give any explanations; instead bombarding me with invasive inquiries about our whereabouts. Rodrigues then gave me two choices: Succumb to the Network rules or part ways with them.
Consequently, I decided to follow Buys suite and leave the next day. I didn’t bother to leave any notice; I simply left.
That afternoon, I met with Tafadzwa Simba, Hifa’s head of communications. Simba told me that the Network had misled us; that, contrary to what they informed us, Hifa was never intended to be the main purpose of the tour and the fest hardly knew anything about neither the activities of the tour nor its objective.
What was the intention behind this tour? What was the point of meeting all these governmental officials and these particular artists? And why were we spoon-fed all these lies? The questions are left for you, dear reader, to ponder.
View from outside
Having finally regained my freedom, I decided to burst out of the glossy Hifa bubble and explore the real Harare. I waded into the heart of the city, observing the slow commotion and sparse neighborhoods and talking to random people.
There are little attractions in Harare, nothing ostensible to behold. The palpable signs of underdevelopment are difficult to ignore; the streets are littered with beggars and homeless people.
There’s a sense of deep-seated seclusion pervading every facet of life in Zimbabwe, a natural corollary of Robert Mugabe’s 30-years-old isolationist policies.
Fear is everywhere; invisible agents of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) are lurking in every corner. "There are a lot of eyes watching," Chirikure said previously. Every conversation I had with the townsfolk was conducted in secret; every word that came out of their mouths was hushed.
The most traumatizing incident I witnessed in Harare took place in a middle of a central bustling street in broad daylight. A young man, 15 years old and working in the informal sector, was seized by two plain-clothed police informers who roughed him up until two policemen arrived to finish the job.
Mugabe, I was informed, is still pretty much in power, in control of every mean of change. And since he’s virtually the sole leader in southern Africa who has managed to stand up to the US and fend off Europe’s interventions, his neighbors continue to back him up.
In recent months, Mugabe started to forge alliances with Iran and North Korea. A week before Hifa’s inception, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whose posters were patently splattered all over Harare — was in town to pen a secret deal for Zimbabwe to receive Iranian oil in exchange for uranium.
“This country suffers in silence,” a cab driver told me. “The world has forgotten about us. No one cares what happens to us.”
Despite the present despondent condition of the country, many are clinging to the newfound hope brought by the election of the coalition government. “Mugabe knows he can’t nominate himself for presidency again because no one will elect him,” a waiter told me.
“Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) still has a long way ahead of them, and Mugabe’s men will not give up easily, but I think things will ultimately change.”
One step in the right direction has been the lifting of the ban on foreign journalists into Zimbabwe (I was among a handful of journalists allowed to enter the country for the first time in more than 11 years), although they remain, for now at least, under heavy scrutiny from the government.
As I readied to leave the Zimbabwean soils, an array of conflicting thoughts inundated my brain. My experience in Harare has been equally distressing and compelling. Politics aside, there’s something so innocent about this place, a quality you tend to miss when you live in a city like Cairo.
I tried to capture my full experience in Zimbabwe during the large gap it took me to finish the second part of this report; I tried to conduct more research, talk to more people and dig deeper into the history of the country. I later realized that it’s impossible to provide an accurate, faithful portrait of an entire nation in one or two reports; that no matter how genuine my account may be, the reality is far more complex.
What I do know is that nothing will change in Zimbabwe if the world continues to keep a blind eye on what’s happening there. And my many reservations over how Hifa operates notwithstanding, I do believe that Harare needs it. In the six-day duration of the fest this year, an estimated 56,000 visitors descended upon the Zimbabwean capital from various parts of the world. And for that alone, the fest, with all its flaws, oddities and false glamour, is worth supporting.
Crowds at the global stage. (By Tinashe Chapepuka)
Tashinga Gondo’s installation “14 Ways to Remember.” (By Anthea Buys)