Every year, the Venice Biennale announces a raft of different countries due to exhibit at the event, the most famous artistic showcase in the world.
Previous years have seen the Vatican, the United Arab Emirates, and even Peckham, make their debuts. Today’s announcement of unlikely debutantes, and long-absent friends, beats them all.
Zimbabwe, in partnership with the British Council, along with artistic institutions in France and Monaco, is set to exhibit work by four Zimbabwean artists at the biennale from June. 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 Zimbabwean National Gallery’s 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.”
The pavilion will be headlined “Seeing Ourselves” and will occupy part of the Church of Santa Maria Della Pieta in central Venice.
Artists to be represented will be video artist Berry Bickle, sculptor Tapfuma Gutsa, photographer Calvin Dondo and painter Misheck Masamvu. They plan to explore issues such as Zimbabwean emigration, Zimbabwe’s role in the Second World War, and farming rights in Venice. None of their work is critical of the current Zimbabwean government.
Their treatment contrasts starkly with that of artists back home. In Zimbabwe, another 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 western Zimbabwe during the 1980s. It was closed by government officials after one day. Afterwards, 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," Zimbabwe's Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture David Coltart told 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."
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.