By Tenford Chitanana – HARARE -Savanna Trust a local arts for development organization recently held its second Protest Arts International Festival (PAIF). This year’s event had participants from Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The festival that ran under the theme, imagining and inventing the future opened with an intimate yet vibrant crowd that was treated to some engaging poetry and music. Launched on the African human rights day, 21 October 2010, the festival challenged protest and cultural artists and researchers to engender and envision democratic spaces for the socio-political development of their societies.
The three day festival with the goal of facilitating the development of critical arts, spectatorship and citizenry opened with a calabash of community theatre and amateur productions at the University of Zimbabwe. The productions saw university students, academics, social activists and community theatre practitioners lock heads in an engaging tirade of theatre and poetry whose storylines revolved around themes of human rights, democracy and the human quest for justice.
In his opening remarks the Savanna Trust board chair, Mr Sydney Chisi said, “There is need for theatre practitioners to know the people to protest to. Theatre practitioners must research from the grassroots level and then capitalize on their God given talents in communicating what they would have researched. Artists should take advantage of opportunities like the democratic space of the inclusive government, and the constitution making process”. He stressed on the role of theatre as an alternative voice as it can help explore issues like democracy, human rights and equality with and for the ordinary citizens, most of them often disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream-state dominated and propagandist media. Just like in mainstream politics and the struggle for democracy and human rights, artists are sometimes confronted with censorship, arrests and countless threats but there is need for resilience to achieve the ideals of democracy.
The festival director Mr. Daniel Maposa augmented Mr. Chisi’s words saying that,” The purpose of the festival is to highlight and reflect on the contribution of protest arts to democratic processes”. He reiterated that protest art was not merely a tool of lampooning the system of the day, simply pointing at evils bedeviling the society or venting outrage, rather it plays an initiatory and active role in raising issues and practices that can enhance democratic processes.
The main component of the festival was the symposium which was opened by Professor Christopher Joseph Odhiambo an Associate Professor of Post-Colonial Literatures and Applied Drama at Moi University in Kenya. In his address titled Intervention Theatre and the paradox of patronage, he argued that all African theatre is protest theatre; there is no art for art’s sake. Prof Odhiambo said, “Every time theatre is done people will be reacting to something”. His address opened up a vibrant discussion on the question of patronage and the symbiotic relationship between art and patrons?
McDonald Lewanika the director of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition gave a civic society perspective on the role of art and the artist in society. His address dwelt on the need for the artist to be relevant to continue living at the same time being relevant to the society. It is through such roles that artist collaborate with civic society in articulating pressing development issues hence community transformation.
At Savanna Trust we strongly believe that ‘ the verdict of the mass is the jury of their own destiny’ yet the space for ordinary citizens has for long been sealed under despotic control of media and political space hence reducing citizens to passive consumers of state propaganda. Deriving from our experience in the use of theatre, we see the festival as an opportunity to bring together artists and the academia not only to break barriers of a shrunken democratic space but to nurse and pursue the discourse on development and fostering civic participation through the arts.
As the curtain came down we remember the engaging performances; Election Day, Apokalupsis, Revolution Avenue, Poetic Journey , Weapons of mass Instruction , the powerful symposium and enlightening workshops but it goes beyond our provocation. As an arts for development organisation we brought together our individual and collective experience into something we called Protest Arts International Festival. The stigma associated with the word protest haunted us. People associated us with violence based on their assumption of protesting as a violent process. At the end of it all, we have learnt that protest arts and the festival are not about mobs running amok and hooligans looting, it is about a creative class of ordinary citizens identifying problems, reflecting on the past and creating alternatives.