The Dreary, the Draconian & the Dues

Society & Culture | By Elton Mjanana, Writer | 22 November 2014
PHOTO: © Baynham Goredema

A lot of the time I find I am asking myself, ‘Why the hell am I even trying this?’. Before I even answer that question, I find myself hard at it and when I come to my senses again, I will be back to asking myself the same question. This cycle has continued for all of my artistic life. It started off as some form of amusement in the mid-nineties when my friend Bobby and I were guys about town, loving everything about the possibilities that a career in the arts seemed to promise – quite a dreamy future of a stylish house in the hills laden with exotic and wrought iron furniture, and a beautiful lass to share it with – a lass lavishly attended to by obedient domestic servants and children in private school. All these dreams and possibilities were pushed by the assumption that art, being intellectual paid well.

Soon we outgrew the teen years and confronted the early adulthood comforting ourselves that ours were just eventualities delayed. Soon enough life took its course and reality sank in with the most depressing weight. We had to pick ourselves, get out of denial and face the truth; unless you’re in making fake pop music, you were bound to struggle in the arts and guaranteed that you couldn’t make a living. So, because we wanted to make a living – albeit anyhow now – we ventured into the real world. We began to see that unless you were in a certain bracket of people, some of whom didn’t bother to be very honest in their choices, you are never going to get that house on a hill, and certainly the accompanying lass wouldn’t get out of our dreams and walk into our lives. Today my friend is exiled and barely making a decent life – he is happy, which makes me happy that life is looking up. I, on the other hand stayed and decided to fight it from within and maybe turn a few perceptions around. What wishful thinking – from a struggling actor to a wanna-be-singer and brilliant writer I have landed a gig as Art Consultant with insurmountable hurdles to clear.  

It has suddenly dawned on me that for my struggles and for all of Bobby’s living in foreign hostility – our fate was never meant to be. It has been designed by a bully system that has ensured the suffocation of the arts. We were so busy plotting our success and conquering the world that we didn’t realize there would be something called censorship which would curtail what angle our work took, and if someone thought it was wrong – we would have our work banned. We were oblivious to the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe which says artists and art bodies must apply to it to host any show. We didn’t know the NACZ would want to see our contracts with artists we want to engage and want to see our budgets so that they can charge us an ‘administrative’ fee, we just thought we would dream up our work and produce it and sell it to a starry-eyed public who would consume it to no end, earning us a lavish living.

Today I sit in my office about to start the process of engaging the NACZ on the issue of the festival that I am now running. I have foreign productions coming in, lots of them – to mix and mingle and cross-culture with the local to forge synergies and networks to result in universally appealing work for global consumption. One is tempted to think they are doing their fair share to make positive this badly damaged country’s reputation. Art has that magical ability to make any bad lighted country attractive – well art and sport. Brazil is famous for its carnival (art) and soccer (sport) and hence everyone even boasts of cleanliness being ‘going Brazil’.

So, I stare at this impressive looking program I have come up with on paper, take a sigh and prepare to face the National Arts Council who will throw me to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority who will toss me back to NACZ. Then, the Censorship Board and then Immigration department and then pay lots and lots of official money and then maybe – if I have all the Police Clearances (from the artist’s countries) of the artists I intend to host, then maybe, all will be well. Then again, one can be forgiven for being pessimistic if the might of South Afrika and their Freshly Ground were netted at Harare Airport and only sniffed at the air of festivities at Harare Garden’s HIFA – or better still the appropriate and children-only Mozambique dominated Umoja Flying Carpet entourage of 40 plus were shown the back hand waved quickly and furiously away -who am I and my little film empire to think I am above this?

I don’t know if it is a fair feeling to want to be fine because I am an artist. I pay all the applicable taxes to my industry and to the greater generality of the nonworking as well as the working masses. I also live by the law blindly – or maybe I should open my eyes. What’s there to see instead of sad and depressing situations in a society that I am supposed to mirror? Piracy of my work going unchecked and nothing to protect my intellectual property - that’s what I am closing my eyes to.

Well, in my sombre moment I ask myself again, ‘Why the hell am I even trying this?’ and before I can answer, the ticking clock reminds me that I cannot afford to waste any minute as anything in dealing with the red tape of the arts takes weeks and weeks to achieve – I of all people should know that the only time I should stop is when the s**t hits the fan again and I am asking myself THAT question again.