Zimbabwe: Platform for free artistic expression awarded



Platform for free artistic expression awarded

In Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, the Book Café reopened on 8 March 2012 after having been shut down in November 2011. It was forced to relocate to a different venue. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai gave an insightful speech centering on censorship of music and arts – and about the government’s role to curb it.

By Maxwell Sibanda – reporting for Freemuse from Harare in Zimbabwe

On the same occasion the Book Café was awarded the Prince Claus Award for opening democratic space and giving censored artists a platform to perform.

Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said he was aware that the state broadcaster, ZBC, was refusing to air critical artistic expressions and that this was a major concern. He said the Book Café’s conferment of the Prince Claus Award, worth 25,000 euros, was because of the venue’s vibrant platform for free artistic expression in a country suffering decades of political and economic upheavals, repressive laws, stringent censorship and a lack of cultural infrastructure.

“I hope that as a result of the media reforms that we have asked the responsible minister to institute, critical art forms will find their unhindered way into our media, in our book shops and in local exhibitions,” said Tsvangirai.

A shared humanity
The Netherlands Ambassador, Barbara Joziasse who handed the Prince Claus Award to Book Café’s creative director, Paul Brickhill said freedom of expression is among the rights of the people.

“Art and culture are forms of expression that arise from the depth of the artist, his or her origin, family, group or country. From the depth of a shared humanity, a humanity shared by all people around the world,” said the ambassador.

“Netherlands’ people supported the liberation struggle of Zimbabwe because we ourselves dreamt of self-determination, access to resources for all people in Zimbabwe, be it access to land, to minerals, metals and diamonds,” she told the guests at the Book Café.

The Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development representative said it was honouring the Book Café for its exemplary support of culture and development in Zimbabwe: “For the diversity, quality and wide reaching impact of its activities, for stimulating creativity and fostering aspiring young talent, and for its tenacity and commitment in upholding freedom of expression in a difficult context.”

Freedom of expression to be encouraged
The Prime Minister said he has also been a victim of artistic censorship in Zimbabwe as his book, ‘At the Deep End’ is unofficially banned. The police have raided a number of bookshops selling his memos.

“The last time I was at the Book Café, I was launching my book, At the Deep End. But my book is now sandwiched by vicious jaws. It is being censored.”

Tsvangirai urged his government to desist from arresting artists: “I want to say I cannot be a proud Prime Minister of a government that arrests, threatens, intimidates and harasses artists for living true to the critical nature of their endeavours.

“Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy and it must be encouraged among ordinary citizens but especially for artists,” he said.

Friction over artistic activities
In November 2011, the Book Café was shut down after owners of the premises refused to renew its lease. In recent past there has been friction between state security agencies and Book Café over artistic activities taking place at the venue. The Book Café was also targeted for allowing gay people into their premises. Political discussions on hot issues was also a worrying trend for state security agencies that when it shut down, many people thought it had been punished for giving protest voice a platform.

The closure came after 7,500 concerts and functions, 650 public discussions, over 70 book launches, 35 theatre productions, staging of 150 international touring acts and countless new local acts and collaborations.

About 600,000 people had entered the twin venues since opening, as Book Cafe in 1997 with Luck Street Blues, and Mannenberg club in 2000 with historic performances by Africa’s great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim.

The two venues gave rise to the urban mbira phenomena, a Friday night institution in Harare’s nightlife, pioneered stand-up comedy, championed freedom of expression, laid the foundation for slam poetry, and created major youth and female arts development programmes.

The venues were closely associated with many great jazz and blues acts in the early years, and latterly with the reggae renaissance sweeping Zimbabwe.

Book Cafe, for those who truly know its heart, has been a place of beauty, joy and togetherness; and so it never failed to uplift the spirit. At least 350 artists earn a dignified livelihood at the venues, as well as 45 staff.

Brings people together
Terence Ranger, who retired from his Oxford Chair in 1977, received an invitation to go to the University of Zimbabwe as Visiting Professor. “The next four years I spent in Harare and a major pleasure of my life was the Book Café. Political and economic problems now confront every aspect of local culture and development. Violence and polarisation once again characterise Zimbabwean life. But despite it all the Book Café survives and brings people together so they can listen to the voices of the new generation of young Zimbabwean intellectuals and creative people, new satirists, singers, writers, poets and musicians,” told Terence Ranger.

Maxwell Sibanda is a Zimbabwean based arts journalist.
Email: maxwell@journalist.com

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