On a resent visit to Zimbabwe, I prepared myself to be met by a nation hungry, sick and struggling. Although the devastating effects of long-term government corruption have certainly tainted life in this once prosperous nation, I saw a new-found beauty emerging in the creativity of individuals. Beyond the very surface cliché African crafts depicting thatched huts, happy colourful villages and chickens, I saw an intriguing new movement of artistic expression. Pain-filled, emotive and deeply moving interpretations of struggle and anger, a rising up and a reclaiming of identity reflected both the current state and the vast potential found in the surrounding community. I saw poets, painters, singers and dancers proclaiming ownership over their nation, dealing with the painful realities of their struggle and expressing a desire for a prosperous future. Here in this body of art, I found the heart of nation, broken, bleeding out and desperately seeking restoration. It was here I found the most honest depiction of Zimbabwe and the heart of its people.
The National Art Gallery of Bulawayo has become home to a monthly open mic night, where residents can come to share in artistic expression, one of the few opportunities they have to voice their feelings and speak openly and honestly. The sheer number of participants is indicative of the desperate need people have for an outlet in which to express themselves. The first night was a huge success, Organisers anticipated about 40 people, but the building was full to capacity with about 200 attendees. “We believe is it art, not government, that holds the key to change in this nation”, one artist clarifies.
And so the question arises, is art simply a reflection of the state of a society, or is art the transformational tool that actually drives a society to change? In Zimbabwe, it seems, it has the very exciting potential for both.