Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Arts in Zimbabwe

An Overview of the Arts in Zimbabwe: Issues and Prospects.
Sunday Mirror Review 13, 2 May 2004

Samuel Ravengai

The 21st century in Zimbabwe is as much an epoch of Agricultural Revolution as it is of Cultural Revolution. The reaction of two statesmen, in different times of history, to the phenomenon of culture is very interesting. When Goebbels, the brains behind Nazi propaganda, heard about the word ‘culture’, he reached for his pistol. Contrastingly, about sixty years later, when Professor Jonathan Moyo heard about the word ‘culture’ he opened his arms to embrace it. I guess he could have jumped into the cockpit of the nearest hawk fighter and fired missiles had control of culture been in the hands of the opposition.
                        Although the divide between art and politics is virtually blurred, let me leave the more overt politics to political analysts and concentrate on art which is the tangible and intangible manifestation of culture. The embracing of culture by Professor Jonathan Moyo is supported by various acts of parliament which encourage and accentuate the production, packaging and dissemination of Zimbabwean art products by Zimbabweans. This Cultural Revolution is already bearing fruits as evidenced by an extraordinary national scramble for the arts in the form of established musicians, upcoming urban grooves musicians, emergence of private and public art schools, and proliferation of various arts groups. National institutions now more than ever before recognise the work done by artistes through annual merit awards as those conferred by ZIMA and NAMA. The corporate world has also more than ever before come on board in supporting the arts. Non-governmental organisations have also added their weight behind this Cultural Revolution. They established the Zimbabwe Culture Fund this year some of whose objectives are to provide financial, material/human support for artistes in all sectors. The Zimbabwe Culture Fund also aims to facilitate capacity building at policy and administrative levels. Their focus is on supporting new and innovative work from emerging mid-level and high level artistes. The juiciest part of their objectives is to help in the ‘commercialisation’ and ‘professionalisation’ of the arts. This is a welcome development in the arts in Zimbabwe.
                        The immerse power that the arts possess has forced the ruling ZANU PF party to retrace its footsteps and rediscover its old self in the face of a stubborn opposition. It has realised that creative arts are an important weapon in winning the hearts and minds of the masses. Those of you who are fortunate enough like me to have inhabited the frontline positions during the 1970s liberation war will remember how liberation movements exploited the arts to win the support of the masses. Their art genre was more on the side of agitprop. The guerrillas gave short speeches during pungwes punctuated by bursts of singing, slogans, ululations and dancing; the type that you see on the sendekera track. They performed mock battles and sketches during the shadowy and ghostly hours of twilight. On the other side of the political spectrum, Mr. Ian Smith, in the fashion of Goebbels, banned art as a subject in schools when he realised its potential to be instrumentalised by those who were against his policies. Most of the traditional performing arts were banned as they qualified to be ‘means or devices used in the practice of sorcery’ under the Witchcraft Suppression Act (1899). Politicians who do not appreciate arts tend to view artistes with repugnance and more often than not as enemies. As one Nigerian artiste Dr. Segun Akinlolu advised “African leaders have to learn that without arts, society is dead”. The present government, through its various ministries, has realised the power that the arts possess in society. But one wonders why the selfsame government did not create an enabling environment for the arts in the last twenty years as it has done recently. In 2001 the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe Director Mr. Titus Chipangura is on record for saying that “the biggest let down for the arts is the government of Zimbabwe through customs people. Government has not realised equipment used by artistes is capital goods”. The government should not wait for political fortunes to dwindle, as they almost did at the turn of the last century, in order to negotiate a marriage of convenience with the arts. Artistes and politician-cum-artistes like minister Manyika, Professor Jonathan Moyo and the soul of the late Border Gezi should examine their consciences and ask themselves if this ‘hypocrisy’ is good. I think that artistes should refuse to be condomised. A situation where artistes are dumped and politicians dump art when political fortunes are high is deplorable. There must be a steadfast, Hosea-Gomer relationship between these two institutions for the betterment of both. However, if the present cultural courtship is genuine, steadfast and perennial, we say well done and I am ready to withdraw my word ‘hypocrisy’.
                        Given this overwhelming support from almost all corners, the question remains: what is the artiste on the ground doing in order to make sure that s/he uses this kind of support to improve his/her artefact? The question of training comes into the scene. Most of the artistes whose works we see in streets, parks, community centres, shopping malls and galleries have trained themselves and have in turn trained others. As for theatre, community institutions have taken the lead in the process of training. Amakhosi takes the lead in Bulawayo, while ZACT and more recently ZAAED are taking the lead in Harare. These institutions being community based, most of their products join the community theatre movement. These community groups value animation of amateurs. Their work is owned by the community as opposed to ownership by the state or private institutions. Their artistic emphasis is on participation as opposed to individual genius. Their standards are more local as opposed to national/international taste. The result is that groups that originate from Matebeleland or are influenced by Amakhosi employ the bravura melodramatic style of acting associated with Cont Mhlanga. Those groups that come from Mashonaland or are influenced by ZACT employ the narrative-song-and-dance style associated with Ngugi wa Mirii. I see a void left by the almost non-existence of a university which teaches ‘art theatre’- the method based approach. A university will establish a national standard that will harmonise all the different styles. A university will help in the democratisation of culture as opposed to the current pluralism or cultural democracy upheld by community art schools. A university will help in the conservation of national heritage and establish an artistic taste palatable to the whole citizenry.
                        In South Africa, most of the performers we see on either e TV or SABC have gone through a university drama school. Achie Moroka of Generations is the external examiner of UCT Drama School. Katlego Danke of e TV’s Backstage is an alumni of UCT Drama School, so is Omotoso of Generations. The list is endless. Where is the University of Zimbabwe’s Theatre Arts Department going wrong? It is not performing at full capacity as it is understaffed. Of the eight people in Zimbabwe trained up to at least a Masters degree in Theatre Arts, only three are at the UZ. The rest cannot be attracted by the meagre salaries that their colleagues are getting at UZ. All legitimate attempts to have them rejoin the department have dismally failed. I feel sorry for Masvingo and Lupane State Universities who want to open mega-faculties of performing arts because they will never get personnel if the fundamentals are not addressed.
                        The other problem is that UZ is too elitist. In order for a student to be enrolled in the Theatre Arts department, s/he needs to have scored at least 11 points at ‘A’ level. Isn’t it disheartening to tell Tatenda Mavetere, Annie Nhire or Ben Mahaka that they cannot be actors, directors or scriptwriters because they don’t have 11 points (not that I have evidence that they don’t). At South African universities, entrance to a drama school is by audition or experience in the theatre and a basic minimal pass at matriculation. And they produce wonderful artistes! In a survey carried out in the Department of Theatre Arts last year, most of the students who enrolled for the course had never applied for it and a good number of them did not know that it even existed. Since most of the students enrolled are not artistes and they don’t even have the passion for art, as soon as they graduate, they rush to go and teach and that is the end of the story. Since Theatre Arts Department’s first students graduated in 1994, to date, no more than twenty of its ex-students are directly involved in the arts.
                        The other problem has to do with established artistes’ attitude towards UZ theatre arts graduates who have a genuine interest in art. There is an undeclared animosity that exists between UZ and them. In the past few years we have not seen these groups working together for the good of art, let alone willing to take on board some of the theatre arts graduates. They want to maintain the status quo. Very few production houses have been willing to cast theatre arts graduates in their soap operas and dramas. They believe actors can be picked from the street. I wish it was that easy! Then how can artistes improve without proper training? All over the world where media arts have considerably developed, training is at the centre of that success. We will forever envy SABC if we don’t put our act together.


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