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Drop in Tourism Hits Zimbabwean Art Market

Zimbabwe's tourism industry had been the fastest growing sector of the economy until about five-years ago when the political problems facing the country resulted in a drastic decline in the number of visitors. Artists in Zimbabwe, who were doing very well from sales of their work to tourists are now struggling to make ends meet.

After independence in 1980, Zimbabwe's artists benefited greatly from the influx of tourists who came to the country to visit attractions, such as the remains of the ancient Great Zimbabwe city, the Victoria Falls, and the game parks. This, coupled with very good hotels and well-developed infrastructure, made Zimbabwe an attractive tourist destination.

The large numbers of tourists saw an increase in earnings for artists, especially the stone sculptors of what is now universally known as Shona art. But the downturn in the economy and the political turbulence that started in the late 1990s has reduced tourist arrivals to a trickle. And the artists are among those feeling the brunt of it.

Charles Kamangwana has been a sculptor and painter since 1994 when he completed an art course at the National Gallery School of Art in Harare. He lived comfortably on his art until about three-years ago. He says that now his sales are few and far between.

"I had to take a teaching job with school of art where I did my education," he says. "This was because I could not live on my art as I used to do. Now I have just left this school of art because even the teaching itself is not giving me enough to survive. So I have started doing some workshops for different organizations. I will be teaching art on a part-time basis, then also it allows me some time to do my own work."

Mr. Kamangwana is one of the lucky few who occasionally exhibit their work overseas. This, he says, helps expose his work to the people who like Zimbabwean art, but are not too comfortable about coming to the country.

The post-independence years also saw a proliferation of art galleries in downtown Harare. Many of them have shut down. Roy Cook established his first gallery in the mid-1980s. But low sales and high rentals have forced him to close his gallery in the city center. He now operates a gallery in a suburb situated on the road to Harare International Airport and another one at Victoria Falls.

Mr. Cook says business is slow and what is keeping him afloat is the Internet.

"I see my means of survival now as developing a website," he explains. "A lot of the business I do now is by e-mail to clients around the world, I have one or two people that feature some of my artwork on their websites, but I really need to develop my own website. I see that as the major hope of survival and growth."

It is not only artists, like Mr. Kamangwana, who are feeling the pinch. Producers of trinkets and souvenirs, who used to make a decent living selling their so-called airport art to the lower end of the market, are suffering as well. Clay Mamvura has been making small stone sculptures since 1992 and selling them by the roadside. Speaking in Shona, Mr. Mamvura says the market has been hit so badly that he is forced to go abroad to sell his wares.

He says he now goes to South Africa where the market is better. He says there must be a way found to bring the tourists back.

Mr. Mamvura says even the South African market is getting saturated with Zimbabwean curios and South Africans are growing increasing hostile to foreigners.

He says he does not expect any improvement in his business until Zimbabwe solves its political problems and the tourists will return.