United we stand … fun scenes at a Human Rights concert in Harare 20 years ago. But can the arts in Zimbabwe regain such freedom today?
Today free expression in Zimbabwe is bloodied and torn. The diversity of African arts, and its role in fostering social cohesion, is being forgotten. Crisis, repression and the politics of expediency have trampled upon basic tenets of our social and cultural life. Zimbabwe will heal again when everyone can say (and vote) as they choose.
Some of us inside the country are not waiting. We Zimbabweans, black and white, decided to create the kind of life we wish to live; our chosen power is the arts. Using them, we can create a place of artistic beauty, joy, togetherness and tolerance; an arts centre that upholds freedom of expression, where artists work with dignity and audiences can appreciate our rich diversity of cultures. We consider this to be the most rational response that culture can make to the economic dislocation, poverty and fear in our midst.
Since 1997 our Book Cafe in Harare has guaranteed no censorship. It is a refuge from violent threats that impose cruel uniformity where none exists; a refuge from the denial of free creation that is the antithesis of African artistic values. The Book Cafe has grown into a cultural icon in Zimbabwe – everyone goes there, because everyone goes there – where we can say the things we feel must be said. We cry, laugh, sing and dance together. If you sit at Book Cafe long enough you will meet every type of Zimbabwean.
Art is not a weak or irrelevant force: when everything is closed and the economy is in ruins, with mob brutality becoming the rule, there is immense release through the arts. The ancient Greeks knew it; they called it catharsis. Our need for such release is innate in human nature.
When we feel crushed by circumstances, becoming immersed in a work of art is not escape but transcendence. In Zimbabwe, through poetry and music, drama and books we assert our human dignity. We question our collective identity and the state of our lives, without having to be specifically political, and in doing these things we make waves.
The government knows. Their secret police – not so secret, sit in the back and look grim; perhaps that’s the point – they keep tabs on our events. Poets, comedians, actors and musicians are arrested, harassed and threatened. During the recent staging of a play about the end of a regime, actors were visited at their homes by police; this was deeply sinister intimidation. Yet the entire cast and crew said that the show must go on, and during the performances everyone, audience included, felt tension and fear – would “they” end the performance and arrest us all?
The audience was afraid but still packed the venue. Such are the small miracles we see daily in the arts. The performances passed without incident, but it adds to our sense of saturation – with torture, beatings and maiming, trauma to children, and barely an ability to escape, it is the poet, the writer, the musician who gently reminds that we have a future, a life to be lived.
Any and all international recognition is crucial. There are many concerned and active people around the world, who speak up for free expression, yet we sometimes need a banner round which to rally. There is a new effort being launched this week, by the philanthropic organisation ArtVenture and the human rights group Article 19. Their Freedom to Create Prize intends to recognise and award artists whose works have promoted free expression and other human rights. In their own words, the prize hopes to “find light in darkness and courage in truth” – and they have the resources to back this up. They have committed US$100,000 across three prizes, including for youth and imprisoned artists.
It reflects the type of innovation and resources that are required to support oppressed artists, not just in Zimbabwe, but in many parts of the world.
Freedom from oppression and the ability to speak freely are inalienable human rights because they are human needs. The true purpose of the arts is to meet the needs of our cultures and societies, and that can be achieved only when freedom of artists and audiences are respected. Artists are not on the fringes; their work is at the core of our aspirations. In Zimbabwe we push back against the culture of fear by saying, at the Book Cafe, that you can think, create, feel and search for our best selves – indeed, you must.