Erased mural: a lost opportunity for Zimbabwe

King Lobengula and Mbuya Nehanda

Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti
Sphinx/BOW’s mural depicting King Lobengula and Mbuya Nehanda standing next to each other with the Ndebele monarch’s hand on the Shona spirit medium’s shoulder, which were painted on a wall at corner Fife Street and 8th Avenue in Bulawayo, should have been embraced by the authorities as much as it was accepted by the public.

The work of art made strong and relevant critical socio-political commentary in a nation polarised along ethnic lines.

The figures in the graffiti art piece are derivatives of the archival images Zimbabweans come across in history textbooks.

As such, there was nothing unusual about the way the two historical icons were presented in the wall portrait, save for their couple-like closeness, with the king’s hand on Nehanda’s shoulder, and the red heart-shaped balloon hoisted by the monarch, itself a derivative of the one held by the subject in Banksy’s Girl with Balloon.

Images of the mural trended on various social media platforms the day the well-painted piece appeared on the street in Bulawayo.

Residents either posed standing next to it or shared the photos on various platforms. As expected of a work of art, it drew a lot of interest and ignited interesting conversations, some of which were unpleasant and polarising.

Is it our history that divides us as a nation? King Lobengula and Mbuya Nehanda never met in real life, which makes Sphinx/BOW’s idea to present them intimately close together intriguing.

One of the most controversial narratives from pre-colonial Zimbabwe is that of King Lobengula’s Ndebele warriors constantly raiding the Shonas in the central and southern parts of the country, taking with them girls and women as spoils of their expeditions.

Then in the post-colonial years, the Shona-dominated forces committed the Gukurahundi genocide in Matabeleland and parts of Midlands. Four decades later, this serious matter is yet to be revisited by the nation, acknowledged by the offenders, and addressed by the government. Some of the key perpetrators of the atrocities are still in office.

It is these seeds of division, coupled with the context of a problematic patriotic history drilled into the citizens’ minds over the years, which make certain sections of our society find the artwork provocative and quite disrespectful.

Yet the purpose of learning history is never to remain stuck in the past, but to learn valuable lessons that drive a nation forward.

I believe when the governments and municipalities pass anti-graffiti by-laws prohibiting graffiti on municipal and government properties, they have in mind political and obscene messages targeting those in authority.

They never consider the benefits of graffiti and public art in general, some of which add value to spaces. The tendency to criminalise graffiti artists is not unique to Zimbabwe.

Of course, in a country where there is hardly any freedom of speech, graffiti is a viable alternative channel for speaking back to power. The legislators do not have in mind beautiful ideas like Sphinx/BOW’s work which rightly serve a social function.

Besides the beautiful depiction, the caption which came with the artwork was a basic call to national unity: “Love is greater than Shona and Ndebele, Africa Unite!”.

What could be more relevant than this message to contemporary Zimbabwe right now? I do not know Sphinx/BOW. In my head I have the image of a young citizen who is tired of the senseless rhetoric from politicians who have failed to unite the nation for decades. I credit the artist for taking the lead, expressing his message through the images of two figures we identify with and revere the most as a divided nation.

Like any piece of art, Sphinx/BOW’s piece sought to ignite dialogue. It should have been embraced by the authorities for its positive messages.

Even though it was erased, I like the idea that it now exists in the virtual realm, which is the other platform for the citizens to speak back to power.

Thanks to those who photographed it and shared it on various platforms for giving the work another life. In erasing it, the Bulawayo City Council lost a valuable opportunity to embrace a work of art with the potential to spark a key national dialogue Zimbabwe urgently needs.