Artist Arrested, Genocide Exhibit Closed in Zimbabwe

Artist Arrested, Genocide Exhibit Closed in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean artist and genocide survivor, Owen Maseko

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — On March 26, a new exhibition opened at the Bulawayo National Arts Gallery in Zimbabwe. It left nothing to the imagination. Even the walls, painted red, appeared stained in blood.

In one corner, the bloodied figure of Joshua Nkomo, the late vice president, bends to sign a peace agreement. Nearby, two figures hang upside down on an artistically configured tree. The illusion of blood is everywhere. Graffiti, 3-D installations and paintings unflinchingly tell the story of the 1983 Zimbabwean genocide.

Just one day after the launch of this exhibition, police arrested and detained Owen Maseko, 36, a local visual artist based in Bulawayo. Following his arrest, his work, the first of its kind to depict the horror of the genocide in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, was banned. Newspapers were used to cove his art, preventing onlookers from seeing the illustrations, graffiti and paintings of what Maseko dubs, “the decade of horror.”

Maseko is being charged with “inciting violence, undermining Mr. Mugabe’s name and demeaning Mr. Mugabe’s tribe, the Shonas.” The exhibition, entitled Sibathonthisele, a glimpse of the past, was scheduled to run through April.

Maseko appeared in court on Monday and posted bail of $100USD. His trial date has been pushed back to May.

An Unrecognized Genocide

According to a report Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe, published by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Foundation,  North Korean-trained Zimbabwean troops, now known as the “red-bereted 5th brigade,” were equipped with what the report calls “unusually cruel skills.”



The report indicates that opposition leaders were targeted for property destruction, gang rape and mass murder in attempts to quell the dissidents in the Matabeleland region. In all, more than 20,000 people were killed. The code name, Gukurahundi, which means the rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains, was given by the government to this operation which has yet to be classified as a genocide by the international criminal court.



Maseko’s exhibition, intended to initiate discussions about the genocide, met with strong resistance from the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, ZANU PF, the political party that was in power during the genocide and currently controls the army and security agencies. They have long controlled media coverage with regard to the killings. 

Maseko is a survivor of the genocide. His lawyer, Kucaca Phulu, says his client spent three days in custody at the Bulawayo Central Police Station. Phulu, a member of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, says Maseko is being held on bogus charges.

“The police are charging my client under Section 33 and Section 42 of the Criminal Law and Codification (Reform) Act, but the laws do not cover pictures, paintings and drawings. The charges should therefore fall off,” Phulu says.

If found guilty of violating Section 33 he may be convicted of undermining the authority of the president. Section 42 makes it a crime to utter provocative statements about race, tribe, place of origin or religion. The crime, described as “causing offense,” carries varying penalties.

Victor Mpofu, the presiding magistrate in Maseko’s case, has moved subsequent court dates into May and has required Maseko to make weekly check ins with local authorities. He has also been banned from international travel. If found guilty, Maseko may be required to pay a fine, could be sentenced to a prison term of one year or both.

Civil society condemns the arrest of Maseko

Methuseli Moyo, director of communication and marketing for the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, says that Maseko’s arrest proves that those behind the Gukurahundi atrocities are unrepentant. Moyo says the arrest undermines freedom of expression, a common issue in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. "People are outraged," Moyo says, in part because the exhibition was intended to heal.

Many civilians say the immediate ban of Maseko’s exhibit reflects the current repressive environment in Zimbabwe. 

Effie Ncube, the chairperson of the Southern Region Consortium on Constitution Reform, views the arrest of Maseko as a perpetuation of media blackout attempts by the ruling political party.

“Arresting a person for expressing himself [about] Gukurahundi or any other atrocities suggests a serious disregard of the feelings of victims,” she says. “The way society treats its journalists and artists and responds to dissenting voices defines its democratic worth.”

President Mugabe has refused to discuss the genocide in public and efforts to get a comment from his spokesman, Rugare Gumbo, were unreturned.