Zimbabwe is one of the countries exhibiting at the glittering Venice Biennale art festival which has just opened in Italy.
"Zimbabwean art practice today is innovative, self-reflective and critical. It creates new positions on global perception and asks us to reconsider what is contemporary art," according to the 54th Venice Biennale.
Zimbabwe's exhibit has been sponsored by the British Council of Zimbabwe as well as artistic institutions in France and Monaco. It is the first time the sub-Saharan nation has exhibited in Venice since 1990, and a rare appearance for an African nation. It is a dramatic coup for the beleaguered country, where those exhibiting work critical of Robert Mugabe’s regime face extended prison terms.
“We are going to be part of the biennale like any other country,” said the National Gallery of Zimbabwe curator Raphael Chikukwa, who will curate the exhibition. “Previously the whole of Africa has been boxed together in a single pavilion. But why isn’t there a European pavilion? Individual European countries are represented. So we have the chance to finally showcase Zimbabwe as a sovereign nation.”
“Seeing Ourselves” is the name of the Zimbabwean pavilion which occupies part of the Church of Santa Maria Della Pieta in central Venice.
Tapfuma Gutsa, one of Zimbabwe's best known sculptors, will be exhibiting politically charged works which are concerned with notions of power and the colonial subjugation of African people. Gutsa uses unorthodox new media of tar and feathers, basket weave and video installation work to articulate his revolutionary artistic discourse.
Video artist Berry Bickle's work explores Zimbabwe's emigration and landscape. Photographer Calvin Dondo is showing a series that explores the dynamics of mixed race families and socio-cultural tribulations of citizenship, migration and the metaphorical ties that bind people together. Painter Misheck Masamvu explores political violence in his painted series entitled "Disputed Seats", which comment on post-colonial African elections.
The gala art exhibit in Venice contrasts with the repression of some artists in Zimbabwe. Artist Owen Maseko is facing 20 years in prison for exhibiting paintings critical of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, last year. Maseko’s paintings examined government-led massacres in the Matabeleland area during the 1980s. It was closed by the government after one day. Maseko was taken to prison in leg irons and held for four days, during which time he was interrogated in 12-hour stretches.
"There are many contradictions in today's Zimbabwe and this is one of them," said Zimbabwe's Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture David Coltart, in an interview with the British newspaper, The Independent. "There is certainly not clear freedom of expression in Zimbabwe but as I understand that the artists going to Venice are genuine independent artists. We have to use every means we can of interacting with the international community."
Maseko said he had no objection to the other artists going to Venice but warned that self censorship was holding back Zimbabweans who were living in fear after his arrest.
"Right now the political situation in Zimbabwe is unstable and that would be used artists' work. But self censorship is an issue. My arrest put a lot of fear into our artists, they are scared," said Maseko. Maseko's exhibition in Bulawayo is still closed and treated as a crime scene. If he should lose his court battle with authorities he said he faces up to 20 years in prison.