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Gukurahundi artist Owen Maseko on Behind The Headlines
Lance Guma, SW Radio Africa
September 02, 2010

Bulawayo based artist Owen Maseko was arrested in March and spent 4 days in police custody after an exhibition of his paintings opened depicting the Gukurahundi era and decades of oppression under Mugabe's regime. The Home Affairs Ministry and the Censorship Board banned his artwork describing it as a ‘tribal based event'. Maseko was also charged with insulting Mugabe. He joins SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma to talk about the entire saga.

Lance Guma: Hello Zimbabwe and welcome to another edition of Behind the Headlines. My guest this week is an artist from Bulawayo whose latest work was banned because it depicts government troops killing villagers in the Matabeleland province. His name is Owen Maseko and he's due to face criminal charges next month.

Now Owen Maseko's exhibition was banned by the Board of Censors this week after the Home Affairs ministry announced that the effigies, words and paintings on the walls portraying the Gukurahundi era were tribally biased or rather a tribally-biased event. Mr Maseko thank you for joining us on the programme.

Owen Maseko: You are welcome.

Guma: Yah this definition by the Home Affairs ministry, let's start off with that. They are saying your paintings depicting the Gukurahundi era are a tribally biased event - let's start off with your reaction to that.

Maseko: Well the issue is, the reality of the situation is that the government actually has to accept the fact that what they did to Ndebele people was really wrong and even if it happened to Kalanga people, happen to Tonga people, any other tribe, it still was going to be wrong. Unfortunately this has to be a tribal thing because obviously it happened in Matabeleland by a particular tribe that did all that.

Guma: Now let's start with your motivation for doing these paintings. Some will say you are opening up old wounds, what would you say to them?

Maseko: Well you know the most important thing that we need to understand, as an artist I'm actually inspired by what happens around me, by my experiences, other people's experiences. So in this case it's the Zimbabwean history that inspired my exhibition which was the Gukurahundi atrocities.

I mean as an artist I've always felt that one needs to be relevant in the society that you live in, so Gukurahundi atrocities are part of Zimbabwean history. Unfortunately it's the kind of history that's really painful for others and other people who wouldn't want that particular history to be spoken about which is why it makes it a very highly sensitive event.

Guma: Now obviously this is a radio programme and our listeners will not be able to have sight of these paintings but I'm sure if they visit our web site they will see the paintings but I'm sure you can describe some of these paintings - there's one that I'm looking at right now it's under the caption "They made us sing". Talk us through that, what were you depicting?

Maseko: Which particular painting is that?

Guma: The one that's written "They made us sing".

Maseko: OK, that particular one is actually a testimony or a confession by one of the victims who actually witnessed all these things happening when, I know most people actually were made to sing as this victim said that they were made to sing when they killed and tortured our brothers and sisters and if you look at that particular painting and these atrocities actually happened a lot in the rural areas.

If you look at those characters in that painting they actually depict people from rural areas in terms of their looking, in terms of their lifestyle and so on. And on your left hand side of that particular painting there are people with caps and glasses, you know who can be moving a little bit into the urban areas where also people were affected as well. So it kind of captures both societies, mainly the rural and then the city people during that time.

Guma: And the other one talks about "Nkomo signs Accord", what were you depicting there?

Maseko: Well the signing of the Unity Accord as far as I am concerned as an artist or any other Ndebele people are concerned is that if you read through the Unity Accord Agreement it's actually I think there are about 11 if not 13 points which were not in favour of the concept of union in the true sense. So it was a way to me as a desperate situation probably in 1987 just to kind of stop these atrocities to a certain extent. That was the whole concept and the idea behind the art work.

Guma: And another interesting one - "Ndebele votes flushed", talk us through that one.

Maseko: Well that one is actually called an ‘installation art' because the exhibition is about painting acrylics on canvas as well as installation art meaning that I brought figures and kind of gave them life and meaning, meaning that I just depicted the voting system since 1980 up to today, as a Ndebele people, or my people of Matabeleland, it was a way of showing that our vote really has never as minority people, has never really made any much difference or has never been considered in the voting system or in the way the votes are being run in this country.

Guma: Now you've tried to have these paintings exhibited and government has made sure this does not happen and you were arrested. For some of our listeners who have maybe forgotten what has happened, can you recount what has been happening this year so far, from the time you got arrested, just describe that for us, what happened?

Maseko: Well when I actually got arrested I was actually locked up for four nights, which is five days and during that time I've been to court several times. I think it's a bit of a tricky situation for the government because they had eventually to decide whether I should be sent for trial or not and now my trial date is on the 13th of September. Because my exhibition is still at the National Art Gallery and it's been banned, it doesn't necessarily mean that the, my criminal charges have been dropped or can be dropped.

Guma: And you have been trying to have this exhibition done across the country and they have been blocking you at every move, Harare, Bulawayo.

Maseko: Yah because I would have loved this exhibition to actually have been moved regionally if not nationally or if not internationally as well but unfortunately because the exhibition was closed 24 hours after its opening, which was traditionally supposed to run for a month at the National Art Gallery but I didn't get that chance so they closed it down, locked the main gallery door to the exhibition and the windows were, newspapers were put on the windows so that people cannot see from outside.

So it meant that the exhibition was cut out meaning that as far as the government is concerned it was evidence. Because I applied sometime to the, I signed an urgent application to the High Court to re-open the exhibition which they denied and the reason was just it is being held as evidence.

Guma: Now you are meant to appear in court I think on the 13th of September and facing charges of putting an exhibition that insults the person of President Robert Mugabe. How do you feel about such a charge? These insult laws have been used in a sense to muzzle criticism of the president.

Maseko: Well I think the most interesting thing although a sad thing for me as well, is that when it comes to art, I always say at times this is the simplest art appreciation lesson for the government and all people concerned because I think people tend not to understand art. Art can be interpreted in any way, so if it can be interpreted in any way it means anyone can say whatever they want, I never said that.

Guma: In the past Mugabe has come out saying the Gukurahundi era was a moment of madness so if he himself admitted as such, why do you think his regime is reacting in this way?

Maseko: I think, well I wouldn't really know that much but the most interesting scenario if it was a moment of madness, we always ask ourselves who was mad? I wouldn't think the victims were actually really mad but I think the current regime is just, there are so many issues that need to be dealt with in Zimbabwe and one of the most important ones is the issue of these atrocities bearing in mind that the organ of national healing that has been put in place, so I think it puts the government or the people concerned in a very tricky situation.

Guma: We are hearing some suggestions from some in the censorship board that from now on people who want to perform need to get entertainment licences which are applicable to public places providing entertainment such as cinema houses and these should be renewable every year, individual artists are required to pay 25 US dollars a year. All these seem to be attempts at muzzling free expression. What has been the reaction of many artists in the country to some of this talk?

Maseko: Well I wouldn't really know about the reaction of many other artists but as far as I'm concerned, I think it's just a simple way for the government to tighten up on the freedom of expression in the country because it's so much easier for artists to actually break through all these barriers that they are trying to create.

I think it's just a way of discouraging artists not to participate in this and when it comes to banning my exhibition and all the time they specifically mentioned that anything principally to do with Gukurahundi is not allowed, meaning that anything that happened during that era as far as Ndebele people are concerned, you will just find that this is not open for discussion.

Guma: We now have a coalition government, what has been the level of support coming from the two MDC formations inside the same government that is treating you in this way? Have you been receiving any form of support from them?

Maseko: No, there have not been any comments from them at all and it is really sad because the government of national unity, this year of union is supposed to be a situation where we are able to discuss about these particular issues, so there's not been any response or any comment, nothing at all. The only response that has been there from our community, is the Ndebele people and the civic organisations and non-governmental organisations which are dealing with human rights issues.

Guma: And issues around your security? You have since become a high profile personality and how are arrangements around your security? Do you fear for life? How is it for you?

Maseko: Well when I actually got arrested I had a terrible moment because it was my first experience as well in prison and fortunately nothing happened that time but because of the changes of the charges and the sensitivity of the matter and more and more people are becoming aware of that, it's really a big concern for me that anything can probably happen to me but at the moment that is nothing really that has happened that I would say . . . ..but it could probably happen because you know our government is unpredictable.

Guma: Well that was Bulawayo-based artist Owen Maseko joining us on Behind the Headlines. Mr Maseko we wish you well for the future and thank you for your time and joining us on the programme.

Maseko: Thank you so much.

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