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Zimbabwe Biennial Postponed Following Government’s Violent Response to Protests

Artist and curator Sithabile Mlotshwa says she founded Zimbabwe’s Bulawayo Biennial to contribute to the “great need” for platforms that represent African artists.

Richard Mudariki’s “The Passover” (2011) is currently on exhibition at Zeitz MOCCA in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of the Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era exhibition on contemporary art from Zimbabwe. (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Zimbabwe’s Bulawayo Biennial, founded last year by artist and curator Sithabile Mlotshwa, has been postponed following a nationwide crisis in response to the spiking cost of fuel. After Zimbabwe’s long-time president Robert Mugabe was ousted in 2017, citizens hoped the nation’s economy would turn around. However, Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, announced there would be a significant increase in fuel prices this January. The hike incited national protest, which has been met with violent response from state security.

A coalition of local human rights groups has said at least 12 people have been killed in response to the nationwide protests, with many more beaten and tortured by state security forces. The UN has requested the state halt its use of “excessive use of force,” including the use of ammunition on civilians and alleged door-to-door searches and beatings.

The Guardian reports that the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has treated 68 gunshot wounds and over 100 other cases of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks” this week.

Over 600 people have been arrested so far, according to ABC, with some accused of “inciting civil disobedience online.” Today, January 18, reports circulated that the government has launched a “total internet shutdown,” likely to quell the internal and international dissemination of information about the political crisis through social media.

Bulawayo Biennial founder Mlotshwa told The Art Newspaper (TAN) that turmoil has necessitated the fair be pushed back from October 2019 to October 2020. The biennial — held in the historic city of Bulawayo, known as the “city of kings” — is the first biennial held in Zimbabwe since 2004. This edition of the biennial is titled, Sabona, which means “I see you” in the Zulu language.

“There is a great need for more platforms that can represent the arts within the continent,” Mlotshwa told TAN, explaining her decision to found the fair after working on the Yango Biennale in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014. “This biennial is not only for artists from Africa and its diasporas but is meant to bring [artists and visitors from around] the world.”

Richard Mudariki, one of the artists who represented Zimbabwe in the 2017 Venice Biennale (where the country has shown since 2011), says of the Bulawayo Biennial, “Overall, I think it’s an excellent idea. More and more such art events must take place on the continent, so as to build a local audience for the local artists. Very few young people in Zimbabwe now know any of the currently successful contemporary artists, rather people in Europe or the US know about them. So, if events like these allow for local engagement with the local people, I truly support it.”

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