Zimbabwean artist, Owen Maseko is facing more than twenty years in jail for depicting the Gukurahundi massacres in which 20,000 people were killed.
In March last year, police shut down Maseko’s exhibition at the National Gallery, in Bulawayo, less than 24-hours after it opened. Called “Sibathontisele” (“Let’s Drip On Them”), an allusion to blood, and a method torture used during the Gukurahundi military offensive against Ndebele civilians in the 1980s.
The Gukurahundi is a Shona word for “the spring rains that sweep away dry season chaff”, and was President Robert Mugabe’s response to the bitter rivalry after independence in 1980 between his Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu). Mugabe is a Shona, whereas Nkomo was from the Kalanga, a tribe associated with the Ndebele from Matabeleland, whose capital is Bulawayo. Mugabe destroyed Nkomo’s power by attacking the people of Matabeleland. When Nkomo eventually retired from politics and the two parties merged into the Zanu-Patriotic Front.
Owen Maseko’s exhibition graphically detailed the atrocities committed during the early years of Mugabe’s rule.
Maseko has been charged with “insulting the president”, which could lead to along prison sentence of up to twenty-four years. In an interview with Bulawayo 24 News, Maseko said he is “optimistic and says his paintings have given people a voice.”
“Those atrocities, you can’t talk openly about them in Zimbabwe, so my exhibition kind of made this issue come out and people began to talk about the exhibition,” he said.
“It’s difficult in Zimbabwe to separate what is politics and what isn’t politics because maybe people see Robert Mugabe in my paintings because it is what is on their minds and their faces and it is what is giving them quite a lot of stress at the moment.”
Bulawayo National Gallery curator Vote Thebe says he displayed the exhibition hoping it would help the healing process.
“Our whole aim was to start a debate on the massacres and let the people talk about what happened,” he said.
“And then that way, once you talk about the thing, you get healed as well.
“It wasn’t a way of pointing fingers but it was a way of making sure that people are aware that such things happened.”
Mugabe admits the massacres were an act of madness, he has never acknowledged responsibility.
A campaign to Free Owen Maseko is currently on Facebook, check here for details.