Â The Great Termite Revolt is the title of a painting by well-known Zimbabwean artist Cosmos Shiridzinomwa, which he produced for an exhibition entitled Let’s Get Together that opened at Harare’s Gallery Delta earlier this month.
Â In the painting columns of termites pour across dark hills into a sunlit valley waving green leaves marked with an X.
Â Two weeks ahead of elections in which authoritarian 84-year-old President Mugabe is seeking to extend his rule, the artist’s message is clear: the people of Zimbabwe are about to arise and reclaim their country through the ballot box.
Â Criticizing the government or leader of Zimbabwe, the one-time breadbasket of Africa where hunger is rife and inflation now in six figures as a result of Mugabe’s populist policies, is a risky business. Accusations of treachery, intimidation and even torture can ensue.
Â Several artists, including popular musician Thomas Mapfumo and playwright Tinashe Jonas have been forced out of the country for penning words of protest.
Â Mapfumo, the voice of the 1970s guerrilla war against minority white rule in then Rhodesia and one-time darling of the Zanu-PF government, fell out of favour with the state after warning against corruption in an album of the same title in 1989.
Â After years of harassment, including impromptu visits from the secret service, he moved to the United States in the late 1990s.
Â You’re a marked man if you sing songs like that, he says of his political brand of music called chimurenga (meaning struggle), after the liberation war.
Â Jonas, the nephew of deceased former Zimbabwean justice minister Edson Zvogbo, who was sidelined by Mugabe after criticizing his policies, also fled Zimbabwe after his satirical play about Zimbabwe’s president entitled The Devilish was banned in 2005 and he received threatening phone calls.
Â Jonas, who says he loves Mugabe but hates his style of governing finally managed to stage his play in Johannesburg in November 2007.
Although South Africa is home to an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans, the cast was entirely South African because Zimbabweans were too afraid to participate, he says.
Â Back at home some theatre companies like Rooftop Promotions have continued to stage hard-hitting works, including the satirical The Good President in 2007, blasted as the sick work of enemies of the state by state-controlled media.
Â Visual art, on the other hand, attracts less official opprobium, says Derek Huggins, founder of Gallery Delta.
Â I think it’s probably easier to be subtly relevant or pertinent in a painting than it in dialogue, he concedes.
Â The works by 43 artists hanging in Gallery Delta, all produced by local artists, all speak of their longing for change.
Â Above the fireplace a painting by Mischeck Masamvu entitled Post Election Results shows a figure clad in black comforting another figure whose mouth is agape in horror.
Â In another work entitled Speech of the Friday, a puffed-up cockerel – the symbol of Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF Ã¢â‚¬â€ addresses a group of hens.
Â The vast majority of the works, however, expressed a desire for unity and reconciliation.
Â A lot of the work was saying let’s sit together and talk or it’s possible to get together, says Huggins. It’s a soul-cry really.Â It was supposed to be non-political but of course everyone is politically-minded here, says Jean-Christophe Courbin, director of the Alliance Francaise in Harare which co-sponsored the exhibition held under the auspices of Francophonie (French-speaking) Week.
Â By choosing Let’s get Together as the theme for the exhibition the French, Canadian and Swiss sponsors wanted to show our heads of state (Western and Zimbabwean) may not agree with each other, but we, the people, want to get together, he added.
Â That spirit of cooperation also extended to the six judges, which selected the competition winners. Despite its political content two judges from the state-controlled National Arts Council and the National Gallery gave the thumbs-up to Shiridzinomwa’s Termites as the unanimous choice for first prize.
Â The termites are on the march and those leaves they're clutching between their feelers are actually ballot slips reports dpa from Harare.