A street art mural in Zimbabwe exposes a divided society

The Shona and the Ndebele are the two most dominant ethnic groups in Zimbabwe. Explaining the pervasive tension between them, historian Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni points to the abuse of the postcolonial state by the ruling Shona-dominated government “in its drive to destroy Ndebele particularism”. He explains: “This sets in motion the current politics of alienation, resentment and grievance in Matabeleland.

This continued marginalization of Matabeleland (a region in southwestern Zimbabwe inhabited mainly by the Ndebele people) by the ZANU-PF led government has made Zimbabwe so fragile that even a mural can reveal its disunity.

The mural in question borrows two historical figures – King Lobengula and Mbuya Nehanda – to express the possibility of unity between the two dominant groups. The treatment of the wall painting is the subject of this analysis.

The fresco that caused trouble

Over the weekend of January 22, 2022, a mural appeared on the corner of Fife Street and 8th Avenue in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city and Matabeleland’s main city. The mural was by Leeroy Spinx Brittain, popularly known as Bow (black or white). By the afternoon of the 24th, the city municipality had cleared it.

King Lobengula is depicted with an arm around Mbuya Nehanda’s shoulders, in life-size images resembling popular archival reproductions. In his other hand, Lobengula holds a heart-shaped balloon instead of his usual spear. It is a derivative of the Girl With Balloon mural by British street artist Banksy.

Bulawayo Deputy Mayor Mlandu Ncube reportedly said the artist did not seek permission and that creating a mural without city permission could result in a heavy fine or jail time.

The artist called on Ndebeles and Shonas to start a dialogue and to unite. But judging by controversial comments on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, few have embraced his message.

According to online comments and news reports, some found the mural disrespectful and offensive – due to the controversial issue of the Gukurahundi massacres.

Echoes of Gukurahundi

Gukurahundi refers to an ethnic cleansing atrocity that claimed up to 20,000 lives in Matebeleland and parts of the Midlands in the 1980s. It is described by academic and feminist activist Shereen Essof as the “first genocide, and always unpunished”, of the regime of Robert Mugabe. British author Hazel Cameron claimed the massacres were carried out under the watchful eye of the British government keen to safeguard its important economic and strategic interests in southern Africa.

To this day, Zimbabwe’s leaders refuse to publicly acknowledge and address the massacres, with Mugabe once calling them a moment of madness. I would argue that unaddressed atrocities have prevented Zimbabweans from collectively embracing and appreciating even innocuous but constructive artistic expression. As long as Gukurahundi continues to be ignored by the state, Zimbabweans will not find common ground.

Who were Nehanda and Lobengula?

Mbuya Nehanda is an ancestral spirit (mhondoro) Zezuru (Shona) who is said to have possessed different wives at different times in history. The Nehanda of the mural is Charwe Nyakasikana. She led the Shona resistance against the colonizing forces of Cecil John Rhodes. For her role in the early Chimurenga uprisings of 1896-1897, she was hanged. To highlight his importance, the ruling regime erected his statue in Harare last year.

Son and successor of King Mzilikazi, founder of the Ndebele Kingdom, King Lobengula ruled the nation from 1868 until the 1890s when his kingdom succumbed to the British. He was never captured. In polarized Zimbabwe, some Shona blame him for signing the Rudd concession. This paved the way for the colonization of the country.

To this day, Shonas and Ndebeles identify with these characters, who have never met in the flesh.

Public art in Zimbabwe

It is the first major controversy over murals and graffiti in the country in years. Sometimes the municipal authorities do not erase the work at all, although it was created without permission. This is the case of Basil Matsika’s murals in Mbare.

It is state-sanctioned public art, primarily statues, that tends to generate controversy. Questions of patronage and who commissioned the work are crucial in determining whether it survives critical and public onslaught. In 2010, people were generally upset when the government ordered a pair of Joshua Nkomo statues from North Korea for Bulawayo and Harare.

Protesters in front of the Joshua Nkomo statue in Bulawayo.

Nkomo was a nationalist and revolutionary leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), who fought alongside ZANU (currently in power) in the country’s liberation struggle. The Ndebele in particular were furious that Pyongyang had helped form the Fifth Brigade, a section of the Zimbabwe National Army responsible for the Gukurahundi rampage. Zimbabweans were also unhappy that no local carver had been commissioned to do the work.

Last year, the government removed the first statue of Nehanda after a public outcry. Nehanda’s youthful and broad portrayal has gone viral on the internet. The artist, David Guy Mutasa, had the chance to correct his mistakes. The Nkomo and Nehanda statues were made because they were a political posturing by the government, disguised as cultural revival initiatives.

The same cannot be said for the Bow mural as an independent initiative. The artist worked with advertising company CaliGraph to create murals of other personalities like musician Sandra Ndebele and socialite Mbo Mahogs and these have not been removed. This would indicate that the authorities embrace his work as long as it is about aesthetics and not politics.

Read more: How artists preserved the memory of the massacres of the 1980s in Zimbabwe

Alongside Black Phar-I, Aero5ol, Kombo Chapfika, the Bulawayo-based Bow is part of a new breed of street performers. He was reportedly raised by an Ndebele grandmother and a Shona grandfather, making it difficult to assign an ethnic group to him unless he identifies with an ethnic group.

This makes him a neutral observer in the socio-political divide. Driven by his desire to see a more united Zimbabwe, Bow promises to do more posters and murals that call for unity between the Shona and the Ndebele. This will continue to challenge the status quo and start a dialogue around the country’s history.

Freedom of expression

Instead of the mural preparing a new tribal storm or creating a bitter debate – as the articles of The standard and ok africa – I submit that Bow’s article reminded the nation of how polarized it has always been.

And the deputy mayor’s jail threats would certainly deter graffiti artists who want to tackle controversial political issues that plague the state. As long as the government continues to stifle freedom of expression, street art and graffiti artists risk limiting their expression to commissions for social campaigns.

Christopher S. Washington