The annual Harare Festival of the Arts got under way Tuesday night in the Zimbabwean capital.
The six-day festival kicked off with a medley of music and dance and promises to be a rare treat for Zimbabweans who are starved for international entertainment because of the prohibitive costs of bringing artists here.
This year, the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) has multi-disciplinary artists from as far afield as South Korea, Sweden, Germany, Angola and Britain.
Festival founder and director Manuel Bagorrro was hard-pressed to pick his personal highlights of this year's festival.
"I think there are some wonderful things," he said. "IYASA [Inkululeko Yabatsha School of Arts], a traditional company from Bulawayo, is performing on our new global stage. They are a terrific company, incredibly enthusiastic and very passionate about encouraging an interest in traditional Zimbabwean artistic styles. Ismael Lo, of course, is a huge African star. We are thrilled and very proud to have him. Also the visual arts, I think they are very exciting this year and very outspoken in their questioning of life in Zimbabwe at the moment."
Some of the multimedia pieces on display at the National Gallery allude to Zimbabwe's problems, such as fuel lines. One shows the country as a leaking house in need of repair. Others depict the resiliance of Zimbabweans and the survival skills they have learned, including patience. There are also theatre performances scheduled that are expected to be highly critical of the government.
The festival is a rare opportunity for open displays of dissent in a country where political opposition usually draws a harsh response from the government.
While the festival does bring some relief to those Zimbabweans who can afford to pay to see shows, there are some who think it should not be happening at all. Critics of President Mugabe, who accuse his government of human rights abuses, say holding the festival gives the impression that everything is all right in Zimbabwe.
Mr. Bagorro argues that while things are far from normal in Zimbabwe, the show must go on.
"I don't think that anyone can imagine that things are normal in Zimbabwe," he added. "Whatever field you are working in, whatever project you are trying to establish, things are not normal here. However, that does not mean to say you have to roll over on your back and say we are going to do nothing. I believe that the arts are crucially important and I think that an arts showcase that says, look, this is an opportunity for us to say something about ourselves, to local audiences, to regional audiences and to artists that come into the country. I think it is crucially important. My own feeling is that as soon as someone stands on stage and sings a note or utters a word that is a statement about human rights and about the intent of people to be creative and one of the things I think one can say about Harare and Zimbabwe generally is that people are industrious and creative and that deserves an outlet and deserves to be celebrated."
The arts, like every other aspect of Zimbabwean life have not been spared from the impact of Zimbabwe's economic and political problems. Some foreign artists withdrew from the Harare festival because of the situation.
In 2002 the festival was not held because of the presidential elections. In March of next year the country is facing a general election and that is about the time preparations for next year's festival would be going into high gear. Mr. Bagorro has not yet decided whether to cancel next year's festival.
"The idea about the election is something that worries us terribly and we really are not certain what to do about it at this stage the sense of the festival is that the international participation is very important to its identity and during an election I think it might be a struggle to bring international artists to Zimbabwe and also for many Zimbabwean artists to communicate what it is they want to say in an environment that is so highly politically charged," he said. "My preference is to go ahead if we possibly can, but I am a realist so we'll have to see how it pans out."
There might be a question mark over next year's festival, but for the next few days it's showtime in downtown Harare.