Muzzled in Zimbabwe: One artist’s struggle to exhibit

18 January 2016

owen maseko profile
Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko first hit the headlines in March 2010 when he was arrested for exhibiting paintings and installations that depicted an episode of the country’s history that the government would rather not discuss.

From 1983 to 1987 the army unleashed an orgy of violence on the people of Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands provinces in response to an insurgence blamed on the Zimbabwe African National Peoples’ Union (ZAPU) led by the Matabele tribe. The insurgents went on a killing spree after the expulsion of ZAPU from the post-independence government led by President Robert Mugabe when the party was blamed for plotting to overthrow the government after arms caches were allegedly discovered on ZAPU-owned properties.

When the violence ended in 1987, after the signing of a unity agreement between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and ZAPU, some rights groups said as many as 20,000 civilians had been killed during the army’s campaign to contain the rebellion dubbed Gukurahundi, meaning “the rains that clear the chaff before spring” in the Shona language.

Almost 20 years after the guns fell silent, the government (still led by Mugabe) has urged Zimbabweans to move on from the period Mugabe has described as “a moment of madness”. But the majority of those affected, Maseko included, still feel that the issue needs to be adequately discussed before it can be consigned to history.

So in 2010, Maseko put up an exhibition entitled ‘Sibathontisele’, meaning “we drip on them” in the isiNdebele language, referring to a torture technique the army used during that “moment of madness” where soldiers would drip hot melted plastic on civilians. The gallery space was awash with the reds, blacks and whites of Maseko’s paintings and pieces that showed in words, figures and mannequins what happened in those dark years in the late 1980s.

Maseko’s exhibition did not stay up long and was shut down by the police two days after its opening at the Bulawayo National Gallery and Maseko was arrested, along with gallery director Voti Thebe. Thebe was released on the same day, but Maseko remained a guest of the government for six nights.

From the beginning it was clear the police were on a fishing expedition.

“I was first charged with treason, [then] it was changed to insulting the president, which would attract a 12-month jail term; then to insulting people of a particular region. Then in September of the same year [2010] they settled on the more serious charge of falsifying information to incite violence, for which one could be locked up for 20 years,” Maseko recounted.

The artist appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds that criminalizing creative arts infringes on the and conscience guaranteed by the constitution; and in early 2015 the country’s highest court ruled in favour of Maseko. This victory was, however, hollow as the Censorship Board had already slapped a ban on his exhibition of the Gukurahundi paintings and installations when it ordered the exhibition closed in Bulawayo. The ban was later extended to cover the whole country.

“It seems the government knew all along that they had no case, so they made sure that I could not exhibit my art works, even if the courts decided I was innocent,” Maseko said. But, at least, the ruling lifted a weight off Maseko’s shoulders: “The prospect of being imprisoned was something that I lived with for three long years”.

A New Exhibit
The dismissal of the case also ostensibly opened the way for Maseko to exhibit at the same gallery in Bulawayo again. Artist Israel Israel sought and got permission to invite Maseko to contribute to a joint exhibition he was curating entitled ‘Kwacha’, meaning “dawn” in the Chichewa language spoken in Malawi.

“The idea behind the exhibition was to challenge artists to go where they had never gone before; to bring out new ideas.  I invited artists from South Africa, Harare [the capital of Zimbabwe] and local artists from here in Bulawayo. This was meant to encourage collaboration amongst artists from different places to work together; to exhibit together,” Israel explained. “Owen had been out of the scene for a long time after his Gukurahundi exhibition and problems over that with the law, so I felt it was time that I should give him a chance if he was interested; and he was interested in bringing something different from the Gukurahundi theme.”

But just to make sure there would be no repeat of the Gukurahundi incident, before his work was accepted, the gallery requested that he submit a sketch of what he was to exhibit.

“The director was happy with the sketch and Owen went on to construct his work,” says Israel.

Maseko submitted a painting and an installation of plaster of Paris figures both of which he called ‘Ikhotha eyikhothayo’, meaning “licking the one who licks you” in isiNdebele. The proverb is about the interdependence of human beings who help or look after each other for their mutual benefit. The painting depicts androgynous figures in close proximity playing with a tire.

“What I tried to capture is the innocence of childhood when we, as boys and girls and boys and boys, could play together without thinking about sex and sexuality. However, because of the closeness of the figures, some people interpreted the painting as depicting homosexuals. The sculpture of intertwined bodies talks about the same theme,” Maseko explained.

Behind the black and white painting and sculpture, Maseko also installed a black chalkboard with some chalk where visitors could write their thoughts on his art or the feelings his art brought out.

“Those who were at the opening obliged and wrote what they thought on the blackboard, which formed the backdrop for both pieces,” he said. “I believe that art speaks to people, so I wanted a dialogue with those who viewed the pieces, they could write what they thought of the pieces.”

owen maseko 2015 exhibitionThe opening of the exhibit went well, but the following morning things were very different.

Israel said he saw the comments on the board, some of which he called “vulgar”, and was asked by gallery director Thebe what was going on.

“Thebe said if Maseko wanted his work to remain part of the exhibition he had to remove the writing,” Israel explained. “So I drove to Owen’s house; but by the time we got back [to the gallery] the pieces had already been put aside. So it was left to him [Maseko] to decide whether to rub the writing off, but he chose not to, so the pieces were removed from the exhibition. He felt that it was part of his work; that people had also contributed to his work.”

Thebe felt strongly that the writings were vulgar and culturally and biblically unacceptable. He further argued that the gallery was a public space open to all, including children, giving him another reason to remove the works.

Thebe told weekly newspaper The Sunday News at the time that he blamed Maseko for not following instructions: “The work was alright when it was put up the day before for the exhibition. His initial concept for the exhibition was clean, but somehow he decided to be controversial; provocative.”

The State of Censorship
Maseko explained that the government has instilled so much fear in people at-large, and artists in particular, that self-censorship has become a way of life.

“I find this rather sad as one cannot use their opinion to judge for others. My own view is that the gallery is sacred space where I should be free to express myself artistically, but I was denied the opportunity to interact with members of the public through my work,” Maseko said. “I was shocked that Thebe would censor me, but then realized that he is the director of a government institution, and also that he may have chosen to be cautious and wanted to avoid being caught up like with what happened with the Gukurahundi exhibition when he was arrested.”

owen maseko gukurahundi exhibit wallIsrael, however, accepts that artists have to work within certain parameters: “There is no absolute freedom of expression in terms of art here in Zimbabwe, there is a limit. I had no problem with the pieces because this is what ‘Kwacha’ encouraged; Owen brought out new, different work.”

Despite this, Israel thinks artists just have to be pragmatic: “As long as the government feels that this is not good for us as a country there is nothing we can do because we do not want to end up in jail or unable to practice our art work.”

So now Maseko is once again on the outside looking in; in the artistic wilderness in terms of exhibiting in a government institution. His only hope now for exhibiting his work is in private galleries and using his own space.

“I am working on expanding the aborted exhibition. I want to expand it on the issue of sex and sexuality and mount an exhibition at my own home,” the artist said.

Israel reckons Maseko is “more of an activist than an ordinary artist that we [Zimbabweans] are used to because he likes to tackle current issues.” Unfortunately this tendency to pigeon-hole and label people is an over simplification of a very complex individual.

Maseko denies he is neither anti-government nor a tribalist. He lauds the government’s attempts to economically empower black Zimbabweans who were the victims of marginalization during colonialism.

“The implementation of the empowerment policies could be better, but at least the Zimbabwean government is doing something that has not been done anywhere else in Africa,” he points out.

He also scoffs at charges that his pursuance of the Gukurahundi atrocities is motivated by tribalism, bemoaning the fact that some people are still stuck in the pre-colonial times when tribes used to fight against each other.

“The government does not seem to realize that with the changing times tribal loyalties mean less than they used to. The generations are changing. If we stop thinking along tribal, racial or sexuality [sic] lines, and say we are all human beings, then any violation of human rights is a degradation of someone’s life,” he explained.

Maseko himself agrees that some people may view him as an activist and may also label his art as political, describing it all as a “thin line”.

“If you are doing your art and addressing politically sensitive issues some people may actually call you a politician, some people even call me the Gukurahundi artist. So people will interpret and give you all sorts of names and titles but I always say to myself I am an artist first,” he said. “I don’t know about becoming a politician, but what I know is, whatever I become, I shall always be an artist and I shall still be doing human rights work.”

The Making of an Artist
What drives Owen Maseko? What is it that makes the multi-disciplinary visual artist choose to rock the boat when he could easily make a comfortable living quietly producing his art like the majority of Zimbabwean artists?

The slight, dreadlocked Maseko was born in 1975 in rural Matabeleland, but was brought up in one of the then townships in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. Upon independence in 1980, an army cantonment was established in his neighborhood.

“I witnessed first-hand the abuse meted out to civilians, including my own father, by the troops during the Gukurahundi period. That had a profound impact on me and left an indelible mark,” he said.

His path to becoming an artist was also a direct result of his circumstances. He describes his parents as poor, but very proud.

“We were so poor that they could not afford to pay my high school examination fees in 1993 but my mother did not want anybody to know that was the case so she made me leave the house every morning as if I was going to school,” he recalled. “I spent the day sitting under a tree with a sculptor who used to send me to bring his stones to him and went back home at the end of the school day.”

This inspired him to seek a place at the famed Mzilikazi Arts and Crafts Center in 1994. He majored in Fine Art and upon completion of his 18-month course he was employed by the arts center as a ceramicist and pottery decorator for the next five years. He paid and sat for his high school examinations in 1997, the year he sold his first painting.

“It was of a village homestead,” he said with a laugh, perhaps with the thought of how far he has come from what some may perceive as an inoffensive painting to the controversial art he now produces.

But being an artist who is not afraid of tackling issues is not easy in Zimbabwe. Before his now-famous run-in with the law over the Gukurahundi exhibition, Maseko reckons he was already a watched man.

“I already had a few warnings from the police who come to see exhibitions. In 2003 I did a painting called ‘One Fool at a Time’, which depicted characters trying to use the toilet at the same time and I was asked by the gallery curators to take it down because some police officers had said it was not an appropriate painting,” he said. “In 2005 I did an exhibition called toilet democracy, which was about the different political parties that had sprouted and what choices people had.”

He added that these incidents and the arrest, even though he was not physically abused, left him psychologically scarred: “The interrogations were hard and I am not sure which hurts more the physical or the psychological.”

Being an Artist Today
Maseko is saddened both by the “loneliness” of being an outspoken artist in Zimbabwe and the lack of unity of purpose amongst artists.

“I think the most unfortunate thing for us as artists in Zimbabwe is that we will never unite,” he said. “Maybe we are just too individualistic, which makes us different. I think now I strongly believe that change can never be done by a group of people; it can only be done by an individual who is committed to do what they do and strongly believe in that.”

While Maseko received constant support from his wife during the Gukurahundi debacle, he recalled not receiving any support from fellow artists.

“My wife Sian was there morning, noon and evening during my detention, bringing me food and was always in court when I had to appear. She also reminded me to go and report to the police station daily, which was one of my bail conditions. I had to do this for a few months and could easily have forgotten to do so and risk being locked up again,” he said. “Nobody else visited me when I was incarcerated or supported me during my long trial.”

Civil society, however, did express their concern over his arrest, but that kind of support comes with its own problems: “The minute a non-governmental organization says something in your support you are viewed as a sponsored someone by that organization.”

owen maseko 2015 exhintion 2

Zimbabwe has gone through political and economic turmoil since the government launched a land reform program in 2000 that saw white farmers who owned the majority of arable land lose most of it for the resettlement of landless blacks. In 2002, western countries imposed a variety of punitive travel and economic measures on the country ostensibly as punishment for human rights abuses. The country’s arts sector, especially the famed stone sculptors, was badly hit as tourists, who are the main consumers of art, stopped coming to Zimbabwe because of the bad press the country was receiving internationally. As a result, many artists have resorted to the mass production of airport art, which they can sell cheaply, simply to put food on the table. Maseko has resisted this compromise by diversifying the art he produces.

“I produce pottery, do graphic design, have set up a book publishing company and built a studio where I plan to record the band I have put together with other budding musicians; I am a self-taught musician and I find making music very relaxing,” he explained.

Maseko strongly believes his cases have tainted his name in Zimbabwe:  “I find it sad that I can exhibit outside the country, but even private galleries here are wary of working with me because of my reputation. They [private galleries] may be easier to shut down compared to government institutions so they don’t want to take any chances.”

So now Maseko wants to establish a cultural village at his home as a place where artists can meet and produce their art, whatever it may be.  The foundation of that cultural village has already been laid and when it is completed it should offer space to leftfield artists like Maseko to express themselves.

This story was written by Freemuse stringer Ish Mafundikwa

For more information on Owen Maseko, including a link to YouTube video showing authorities carry out the ‘Ikhotha eyikhothayo’ sculpture, follow the links below:

» – 3 November 2015:
Zimbabwe: Visual artist’s new works once again pulled down

» – 7 January 2014:
Zimbabwe: Banned playwright and visual artist isolated

» – 22 December 2013:
Zimbabwe: Constitutional court ruling in favour of artistic freedom of expression

» – 31 October 2013:
Zimbabwe: Visual artist challenges charges of insulting president

» – 4 September 2012:
Zimbabwe: Censorship of visual artist

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