HARARE – The City of Kings is regarded in Zimbabwe as the ‘pot of culture’ because of its vast cultural programmes and how it has kept its cultural legacy alive.
But there is something disheartening as you visit the city’s national art gallery which is situated in the centre of this bursting cultural community.
While it would be pleasant to view some displayed artefacts within the gallery floors from outside, it is sad that the larger portion of the gallery’s windows are painted black.
And this is just a reminder of how insensitive law enforcement agents have been since they locked in Owen Maseko’s painting exhibition which narrates events around the sensitive Gukurahundi era.
Bulawayo-based artist Maseko was arrested in March 2010 and spent four days in police custody after an exhibition of his paintings opened depicting the Gukurahundi era and decades of oppression under Zanu PF rule.
The exhibition, titled Sibathontisele (Let’s Drip On Them), comprised three installations and 12 paintings.
Home Affairs ministry and the Censorship Board banned his artwork describing it as a ‘tribal-based event’. The Board of Censors and Home Affairs ministry announced that the effigies, words and paintings on the walls portraying the Gukurahundi era were tribally-biased or rather a tribally-biased event.
Police could not remove the graphic pictures and graffiti which had been painted directly onto the walls of the gallery, so they stormed the building and shut the exhibition down.
Maseko was charged, under the Public Order and Security Act, with “undermining the authority” of President Robert Mugabe. He was also charged with “causing offence to persons of a particular race or religion”. The charges carry a possible 20-year prison sentence.
He was granted bail.
After the closure, his trial was postponed pending consideration by the Supreme Court as to “whether criminalising creative arts infringes on the freedom of expression and freedom of conscience”, as guaranteed by the Constitution. A magistrate granted an application to the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds, and on the grounds that Maseko’s art depicted events which had unquestionably happened.
The controversial artist says he is actually inspired by what happens around him, his experiences and those of others, hence in this case it is the Zimbabwean history that inspired his exhibition on the Gukurahundi atrocities.
“Gukurahundi atrocities are part of Zimbabwean history but unfortunately it is the kind of history that is painful for others and other people who wouldn’t want that particular history to be spoken about which is why it makes it a very highly sensitive event,” Maseko told the media after his arrest.
The exhibition comprise testimonies of victims who actually witnessed Gukurahundi unfold with some forced to sing “when they killed and tortured our brothers and sisters in the rural and urban areas.”
When the exhibition was shut down in 2010, the windows to the floor holding the works were covered by old newspapers until recently when it was decided that they be ‘permanently’ painted black.
The exhibition was closed 24 hours after its opening, and was traditionally supposed to run for a month.
Authorities locked the main gallery door to the exhibition and newspapers were put on the windows so that people could not see from outside.
Maseko’s exhibition remains tucked at the Bulawayo national gallery three years down the line as a court exhibit, indeed a reminder of the dark and brutal side of artistic censorship.
The continued shut down of the exhibition in a way discourages artists who have anything creative to say about the Gukurahundi era, meaning that anything that happened during that era is not open for discussion.
For other artists in Bulawayo who would like to use the space locked by the police, the continued ‘detention’ is depriving them of valuable room to showcase.
As for the gallery itself, this is a reminder of how alleged critical minds within the arts sector can be silenced by those in authority.
While the courts have been taking their time to bring to finality the impasse between Maseko and the law enforcement agencies, the artist was second runner up to The Freedom to Create Prize 2010 in Egypt in recognition for his exhibition on the Gukurahundi killings.
The Freedom to Create Prize was established in 2008 and celebrates the courage and creativity of artists who use their talents to promote social justice, inspire the human spirit and transform communities. The awards are open to artists in all creative fields.
Maseko commented after the award: “I have given the sensitive and raw issue of the Gukurahundi massacre a face and a voice and I am prepared to take a bullet for it. The support and recognition of winning the Freedom to Create Prize will allow me continued freedom to create and to express the ideas, hopes, dreams and aspirations of my countrymen, laying the foundations for a reconciled, vibrant and flourishing Zimbabwe.”
Maseko was born in 1974 and is a Zimbabwean visual artist and installation artist.