The Art That Robert Mugabe Doesn't Want You to See

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe— The long-suffering people of Zimbabwe escaped white minority rule in 1980 only to endure decades of strife, economic decay, and recent hyperinflation under the leadership of autocratic president Robert Mugabe.

Forced by popular unrest last year to reach a power-sharing agreement with rival Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe is now threatening to dissolve parliament if an agreement cannot be reached about when to hold elections. And in the recent political drama of Zimbabwe, art has had a small role to play.

Last March, Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko had an exhibition at the National Gallery in Bulawayo shuttered by authorities who claimed that it would provoke inter-tribal strife. In reality, the works simply addressed a politically sensitive subject: the 1980s period known as the Gukurahundi, when forces associated with Mugabe committed widespread atrocities. As a result of the show, Maseko was dragged to jail in leg shackles.

According to the Web site of Sokwanele, an underground pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe, the artist was initially charged with violating a prohibition on anything that "insults or undermines the authority of the President," as well as "Causing offense to persons of a particular race, religion, etc." — charges that warrant a fine or a prison sentence of up to a year.

However, following an official order banning Maseko’s Gukurahundi show in late August, the government attempted to change the charges against Maseko to violating a ban on "publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State," an offense that would carry up to 20 years of prison time.

These charges were dropped in September when Maseko’s lawyer was able to argue that "there is no procedure which allows the State to substitute a less serious charge for a more serious charge." However, his art remains banned, and his exhibition at the National Gallery apparently continues to be locked away as potential evidence against him.
"At the National Gallery here, the stately staircase leading to the shuttered Gukurahundi exhibit is now blocked by a sign that says ‘No Entry,’" wrote the New York Times’s Celia M. Dugger in a recent article about Zimbabwe. "But the paintings, on walls saturated with blood-red paint, can still be glimpsed from the gallery above, through the bars of balconies. The paintings themselves seem to be jailed."

Maseko’s Gukurahundi exhibition includes graffiti and installation elements as well as paintings. Slogans scrawled on the walls proclaim such sentiments as "A weak community is a politically compliant one," and "Patterns of resilience and support need to be facilitated…."

The show also included several dummies strewn around the space, apparently representing victims of the atrocities. The paintings depicted faceless silhouettes weeping and fleeing in terror, as well as a repeated, sinister caricature of a figure in over-sized glasses: Mugabe.

Maseko’s personal Web site (now defunct but quoted on the Sokwanele site) explained his philosophy as an artist: "Being an artist is about being brave and using art to challenge attitudes," he wrote. "People in Zimbabwe are waiting for change, but we as Zimbabweans are the change."

Click on the slide show at the left to see the art that Robert Mugabe doesn’t want you to see.  –