Gukurahundi artist speaks out

Owen Maseko, the visual artist accused by the Robert Mugabe administration of ‘offending’ the president through his paintings depicting the Gukurahundi atrocities, has spoken out about his experiences.


Maseko was arrested on March 25th, 2010 – the first day of his Sibathontisele exhibition at the Bulawayo Art gallery – and charged with insulting Mugabe.

His exhibition was boarded up and that section of the gallery treated as a crime scene, and Maseko says the only time he was allowed to see his work was when the magistrate hearing his case asked to be shown what these “offensive” images were as she couldn’t understand the basis of the charges.

Magistrate Ntombizodwa Mazhandu subsequently acknowledged that the state-sanctioned murder and torture of more than 20,000 civilians in Matebeleland and the Midlands, code-named Gukurahundi, did take place.

Maseko’s case was transferred to the ConCourt after his lawyers argued that using the Criminal Law Act to suppress Maseko’s artistic creativity was unconstitutional.

Last Wednesday, the top court agreed with Maseko’s lawyers, and asked the Justice Minister to appear before the judges on November 20th to show cause why sections of that legislation should stand.

On Thursday, Maseko told SW Radio Africa of his relief at the ConCourt verdict.

“It’s been a very uncertain period for my family. To start with, following my arrest, I was ostracised by the artistic community in Bulawayo. No gallery would allow me to exhibit and I was shunned even by the small group that I was an official of.

“Of course I had opportunities to exhibit in Europe, but it is never the same as exhibiting at home, being part of your community, your people and so this was a very sad time for me.”

On the streets of Bulawayo Maseko says he received mixed reactions, with some calling him a tribalist because of his paintings. Some however visited his home-based gallery to see for themselves the kind of work he does.

“I look forward to a day when open discussion of this sad chapter of our history will be allowed without tribalising it. Of course Gukurahundi was perpetrated by some members of one tribe against another tribe, but as a country we need to see beyond tribal lines and begin to interrogate this atrocity within the broader issue of human rights abuses.

“And we can only get to that stage by acknowledging that it happened rather than trying to sweep it under the carpet. Government needs to realise that talking about it, in whatever form, is part of the healing process for the victims,” Maseko added.

Despite the possibility of spending 20 years behind bars for the ‘insult’ crime, Maseko says he was never so afraid as to self-censor.

“Since I was first arrested, there has been more scrutiny directed at artists, and although there have been many times when I have been afraid, it was fear for my safety, and never fear to express myself.

“There have been times in the last three years when I have felt low, and that has spurred even more vivid paintings of my experiences. I have never considered self-censoring because I don’t see anything wrong, offensive or insulting in saying the truth,” he added.

It’s not the first time that the ZANU PF government has been offended by art. In the 1990s a statue by another Bulawayo artist, Adam Madebe, was banished from public display by the late minister Enos Chikowore “to protect Zimbabweans against its corrupting and perverting influence.”

Madebe’s artwork, named Look into the Future, was a four-metre-high statue of a nude male, and depicted a young man looking to his future with no possessions. Some read it as a political statement and an indictment of the worsening social and economic conditions at the time, hence the discomfort within government circles. – SW Radio Africa News

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  1. Cde Manesi

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