Zimbabwe in Venice

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Misheck Masamvu, Sacred Verse (2011) oil/canvas.

In a deliciously candid symposium at Iniva yesterday, Raphael Chikukwa, curator of the Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, confessed with a twinkle that – through lack of knowledge of procedures – they’d messed up on signage at the start: “We can say that at first 35000 people walked past the Zimbabwe pavilion – and a few hundred came in!”. Chikukwa’s unlikely collaborator and sponsor, Francois Larini of the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco, was similarly frank. His brand new art museum decided to back Zimbabwe’s pavilion because of their interest in African art – and because they did not feel art in Monaco itself could support a pavilion. “There was a Monaco pavilion a few years ago,” Larini said cheerfully, “It was a disaster”.

Now Zimbabwe is offering advice sessions to other African countries wishing to tackle Venice, where the continent is extremely underrepresented. Chikukwa’s choice of artists was certainly skilful, selecting Zimbabwean artists “who were engaging with international arts discourse”. He left out Zimbabwean stone sculpture, preferring artists whose work in photography, film, installation and painting was more likely to appeal to the Biennale opening week crowd.

I loved Misheck Masamvu’s emotional and powerful paintings and was glad to hear him talk about his work, something he said he rarely does. Incorporating animals as symbols into his paintings took me back to conversations with sculptors in the Zimbabwean village where I worked 18 years ago, as the artists there grappled to combine traditional and contemporary beliefs and ideas, often using animal totems. But Masamvu’s descriptions also reminded me of artists in Tehran speaking about their work, in which critique was deeply coded through symbols, making it hard for censors to ‘read’.

The Government of Zimbabwe also financed the pavilion, though a remarkable piece of negotiation by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Gallery director Doreen Sibanda noted that officialdom is starting to see the positive side of visual arts, because of the success of Zimbabwean stone sculpture. Quizzed about the level of freedom allowed to artists by the government, she countered: “Some of the work we’ve shown over the last 10-15 years has been really ‘out there’ and has raised eyebrows”. She did not mention that the authorities have arrested several Zimbabwean artists this year, and arrested Owen Maseko last year for an exhibition at the National Gallery’s branch in Bulawayo, which chronicled the Matabeleland atrocities carried out by President Mugabe. Life for artists in Zimbabwe continues to be very difficult, economically and politically.

Owen Maseko
Installation by Owen Maskeko from his exhibition 'Sibathontisele' (2010)