The State of Arts in Zimbabwe (2002-2004)

An article written by Mrs Palmberg for the Nordic Africa Institute

Zimbabwe is an interesting country in its breadth and depth of arts development in literature, sculpture, painting, music, dance and film. In addition, artistic handicraft has developed into a field of its own.

With this and more in mind I set out for a seven weeks visit to Zimbabwe at the end of 2002, and a three weeks visit in mid-2003, to meet and interview artists from different genres, and a few people working with the arts (as publishers, critics or scholars). I returned for two weeks in April 2004. One of the main reasons for the fieldwork was a need to mitigate the paucity of artists’ voices in the scholarly discourse on the arts. I came to Zimbabwe to collect raw material for a book in Swedish on cultural dynamics in contemporary cultural production in Africa, where voices of the artists in different parts of Africa will feature at the side of contributions from scholars in the network of the “Cultural Images in and of Africa” project.

The aim of this collection of interviews is different. The artists’ voices are presented here not so much in the context of the overall developments in and study of the arts, but rather as topical testimonies of their reflections and experiences in what the new director of the National Gallery in Harare, Doreen Sibanda, at a seminar in April 2004 called “these hard times”.

In my encounters with artists in Zimbabwe I was initially intent on extracting views and material on long-term trends governing the arts in independent Zimbabwe. It soon became obvious, however, that the present deep crisis affected both the long-term and the short-term artistic practice. I changed my interview strategy and included questions on what this situation meant for the artists. Some aspects of their stories are personal, but many undoubtedly find their equivalence in crisis situations in other countries.

The crises
There is more than one crisis in Zimbabwe. Economically and socially Zimbabwe has been in a crisis, with increasing unemployment, rising food prices, and recurring droughts, for more than ten years, roughly coinciding with the acceptance of the conditions of structural adjustment tied to the loans sought from the International Monetary Fund.

In the year 2000 the crisis dramatically took on a new, clearly political dimension, when the ruling party, for the first since the beginning of the 1980s, felt that there was a serious risk that it might be removed from power by a political rival. The first warning came with the constitutional referendum in 2000, where the ZANU-PF found its alternative rejected.

Soon after that the ZANU-PF announced a radical land policy to redistribute land from the commercial farmers, who happened to be white, and an organisation of war veterans entered the political scene with what seemed to be a license from the government to oust farmers and farm workers. In the parliamentary election in 2000 the ruling party retained a majority, but the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) gained enough seats and votes to continue to pose a threat to power.

In March 2002 President Mugabe was re-elected. These elections are widely regarded as not having been free and fair, and the opposition rejected the legitimacy of the President’s rule. The political crisis has been accompanied by a drastic redefinition of Zimbabwean identity. The inclusive definition in early independence was compromised by the rejection of dissidents (breakaways from the newly formed national army) in Matabeleland in the 1980s, a process seemingly reversed with the unity agreement between rival nationalist parties in 1987. Since 2000, white farmers, farm workers on the white farms the leaders, activists and supporters of the opposition party, MDC, have been successively excluded from belonging to the nation, and labelled as traitors.

Identity and belonging
Some would argue that the Ndebeles, the second-largest ethnic group in the country, are also excluded. When I visited Bulawayo in November 2002, a purported ZANU (PF) document had circulated widely in Matabeleland, proclaiming Shona hegemony. The historian Pathisa Nyathi was convinced that this was modelled on a colonial tactic of divide and rule, and not at all originating with the government , however, he reported that most people in Matabeleland believed that the document was authentic. It might be added that among those interviewed, who are from Bulawayo but live in Harare, none mentioned animosities between Shona and Ndebele, or thought that they existed (Albert Nyathi, Chibanguza, Musengezi, Phiri).

In these interviews the issue of identity is partly dealt with on an individual basis, revolving around the background story of how the interviewee came to be an artist. There is an impressive resilience in the artists’ self-perception as artists, clearly visible in the discussions on the labelling of artistic styles (Douglas, Mavedhzenge, Brickhill). Artists’ perceptions of themselves and how the crisis affects them are also self-conscioulsy gendered (see Chiwoniso and Chibanguza).

The making of the interviews
In choosing the persons to interview several considerations were made. I could only see people who were available in Harare or Bulawayo; I also wanted them to be active as artists, and preferably have a reflective attitude to their art and position as artists. I did not want to interview only well-known and established artists, however, but wanted a mix of young and old, established and emerging. And I wanted to meet artists from as many kinds of art as possible. I received advice on whom to contact from many different quarters, and also added my own names to the list. For the 2002 visit, the final list was put together with the aid of Annie Sabau and Paul Brickhill at the Pamberi Trust. There were of course some interviews that I had wanted to make but which, for different reasons, could not be made.

The interviews generally followed a relatively set pattern: I first asked why and how the interviewee had become what she/he was in the arts. The second set of questions was about how their own art had changed, or how they had seen their genre change from a nationalist agenda of being educators for unity and progress to a more open space. (These parts of the interviews are generally not reproduced in this collection.) The third set of questions was on how the crisis in Zimbabwe affects the artists, how their art reflects the situation.

Expectedly, some interviewees were very verbal, and some needed many questions to tell their stories and views. I never had any ambition to make a survey, where every respondent answers exactly the same questions. Rather, I let the interviews flow in unexpected directions when I saw where the interests and thoughts were.

Most of the interviews were made in Harare or Bulawayo, with a few exceptions: Charles Mungoshi and Samuel Matsangaise were interviewed while they were visiting Sweden. Most interviews in Harare were made in the Book Café, a cosy but unfortunately rather noisy place, where they always seemed to hammer on a roof repair while I interviewed. I would have preferred to interview in the work places or homes of the interviewees, but there were advantages to this arrangement. Since many interviews were arranged for me by Paul Brickhill and Annie Sabau from Pamberi Trust, which runs the Book Café, having the interviews in this venue could be interpreted as their show of faith in me and a sign to the interviewees that Pamberi Trust thought this worthwhile.

It should be borne in mind that many of my interviewees met me for the first time for the interviews. To meet in a public space was both a risk of being overheard, but also a sign to those who perhaps were sent to check on me that there was nothing to hide. Yet it also meant that my interviewees, with only a few exceptions, were understandably quite unwilling to dwell on the general question of how they understood the crisis in Zimbabwe and its causes. My idea to gather comparative statements on the crisis therefore had to be abandoned.

My aim was to include only taped interviews made face to face. Yet, the text of these extracts is, of course, not identical with the taped interviews. Apart from the fact that these are selected parts of the interviews, there is also some language editing. While avoiding converting spoken language to written language, I have eliminated some of the repetition that is both natural and necessary in a spoken dialogue. I have slightly changed the chronology in cases where we returned several times to the same theme or story. I have put most of the verbs into written form (e.g. ‘hasn’t’ into ‘has not’). Lastly, all interviewees have been given the opportunity to see the texts, and in some cases they have added some clarifications, or asked for deletion of some parts. I thank them for their cooperation.

Arts and the crisis
Artists need to survive, and to live as an artist you must get an income from your work. Some genres are more sensitive to the failing market than others, in Zimbabwe particularly sculpture, and, of course, also crafts.

All interviews on these genres bemoan the difficulties encountered now (Winter Irving, Ziteya, Benhura, Majo). Adam Madebe has put his life-work as metal sculptor aside to earn his living in the building industry (Madebe). He has later moved to South Africa, waiting for better times at home. Yet, some sculptors with a solid international reputation like Dominic Benhura has no problems selling on the global market, while the sculptors working in his backyard find few visitors (Benhura).

The market also affects the book industry. The Zimbabwe International Book Fair is hard put to regain its previous status as a lively meeting place and growing market place (see Matsangaise). The failing book market has meant a reduced willingness of publishers to print in Shona and Ndebele (Matsangaise).

The Zimbabwe I met was a highly polarised society. It is polarised on the political scene, with the ruling ZANU(PF) and the opposition MDC seeing each other as foes in a fierce contest for power, with considerable violence and threat of violence. This polarisation spills over onto the scene of ideas, debate and culture, with the effect that it often seems more important to define which side you are on, than what you think. The ease by which a journalist could give me a run-down on who was in which camp in the music world in Zimbabwe is but one example.

This of course affects the creation and reception of art. A dub poet, as he calls himself, found that he could not continue reading because everything was received in a polarised way, as ammunition to antagonists in trenches (Albert Nyathi), while another performing poet found it hard to choose his repertoire freely (Chirikure), and both found that poems they had written some time ago and in an other context were now taken to be a comment on the present political actors. Something similar was experienced by Charles Mungoshi who found that a book of his, previously dismissed as devoid of social relevance, is now praised as a highly relevant and topical social commentary (Mungoshi).

For some artists it is natural to see their work as a witness to the crisis (Kambudzi, Masamvu, Jack). Others are describing suffering, but denying that they are political, even when having written a song that is interpreted as a support for the government land policies (Chiwoniso). Others find themselves caught up in the polarisation, while wanting to give space to more than one side (Dangarembga). What theme you choose can also be determined by the preferences of foreign funders (Mirii). There are some artists who probably would continue commenting on suffering and injustice whatever the regime, and whatever the crisis (Phiri, Takawira).

A theatre show named “Rags and Garbage”, performed by Walter Mapurutsa in November 2002, was the most outspoken critique of the government that I came across. That is until I saw Superpatriots and Moroons at the Harare International Festival of Arts in April 2004) in, a Rooftop play which was a scathing satire of the president. This play was banned after the festival, but had already been shown in many parts of the country.

In “Rags and Garbage” there was what seemed like a conscious strategy of laying blame evenly and pouring acid over both ruling party and as the play put it aspiring ruler. A survival tactic or a considered opinion? (see Zenenga and Mapurutsa).

What is certain is the perceived need for a survival strategy. A singer claims that only the absolute top musicians can be critical without aftermath, she herself has no thought of it (Chibanghuza). And the Zimbabwe Women’s Writers state they have no way of protecting their members in rural areas, they just have to stay out of trouble (Musengezi).

Yet there is another side to the story of contents, creativity and crisis. Crisis can also sharpen and challenge the creative mind (Murray), and a society in political crisis can also be, within limits, a stimulating society (Dangarembga).

There are of course also artists who have thrown in their luck with the government, some of them, notably musicians, getting some financial reward from it. But if one looks for writers’ support for what is called the “Third Chimurenga”* one arrives at a paradoxical result. One finds that many writers in the 1980s and early 1990s were more interested in what land meant for the Africana than the government was, but some of the same writers are now disillusioned, or outspoken critics (Muponde, Mungoshi).

Despite the nationalist ideology of the national liberation war there was little effort to shape a nationalist cultural policy after independence, including Africanising education (Ziteya, Chimedza). The government now seems to upgrade cultural policies, but one may ask whether this is only to use culture as a partisan weapon in the political contestation, as in the introduction of a national youth service to teach patriotism, discipline and appreciation of Zimbabwean culture. Anybody who has been to Zimbabwe would know of the paid slots in the radio and TV programmes for songs and videos extolling the land policies under the banner ”Hondo Yeminda” (Struggle for Land), and exhorting greater efforts with the slogan ”Rambai Makushinga” (Get on, Persist).

In 2002 a new rule was instituted by which at least 75 per cent of the content opf radio and TV programmes must be local, i.e. Zimbabwean. Matabeleland is here in a special situation, with its shared music with South Africa and Johannesburg). The greater government emphasis on the arts is noted by some of the interviewees, and the subtle ways the arts get used (Zenenga).

There seems to be no clear cultural style or genre associated with the ruling party or its government, although the government does sponsor and favour both hip-hop and gospel by generous air time. As the mbira is closely associated with Shona culture and with the resistance against the white missionaries and occupiers, one might think mbira was doomed to become a cultural icon for the ”Third Chimurenga”, but the answer was not conclusive (Chimedza, Chiwoniso).

These are the voices of artists and some scholars and cultural workers, witnesses to a particularly difficult period in Zimbabwe’s history, told in their own words. The extracts have been chosen to reflect the concerns of the artists in this time of crisis.

I want to thank the division for culture and media in Sida (the Swedish International Development Cooperation Authority) for financial support, which made my visits to Zimbabwe possible. My gratitude goes also to Pat Brickhill, who helped me prepare the series of interviews, and to Paul Brickhill and Annie Sabau, who helped me on the spot in Harare. My thanks also to Irene Staunton and Murray McCartney in Harare and to Yvonne Vera in Bulawayo for hospitality and support.

I thank Ranka Primorac, Kirsten Holst Petersen, Robert Muponde, and Terence Ranger for their views, and for encouraging me to put together this material for publishing.

For sharing the work with the texts in Uppsala I thank Inga-Britt Isaksson Faris, and Nina Frödin. Thanks also to Alexandra Swenning who has put the material on the website. Most of the transcription has been done by the Veritas Transcription Service in Cape Town.

Uppsala and Dalsbruk July 2004

Mai Palmberg
Coordinator of the project ”Cultural Images in and of Africa” at the Nordic Africa Institute

*Chimurenga means “war”, “struggle” or “liberation”, and the first Chimurenga refers to the uprising against the British invaders in 1896, while the second refers to the armed liberation struggle in the 1970s, which preceded independence in 1980. The Third Chimurenga, an expression adopted by ZANU(PF) after 2000, refers to the take-over of land from the white farmers, and the fight against the perceived threat of British recolonisation of Zimbabwe.

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