About the Author: Andrew Posner is Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.
The U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe welcomed young American artist Eric Telfort for a three-week State Department Visual Arts Initiative (VAI) program in August. Our Public Affairs Office staff organized a well-attended series of local artist and youth workshops, along with an exhibition of Mr. Telfort's paintings at the Bulawayo Gallery, located in the second-largest city in Zimbabwe. The gallery is a hub for artists in this dynamic, outspoken city that is a stronghold for the MDC opposition political party in Zimbabwe. The Bulawayo Gallery attracts many prominent artists and large audiences, but Eric's program there was the first American art program in many years. It was a milestone for U.S. cultural programming and outreach, which brought some interesting challenges.
Zimbabwean immigration officials delayed clearing Mr. Telfort's paintings and material for several days, relenting only after some negotiations and an Embassy-written guarantee that the art would go back to the United States. One reason that this exhibit came under especially close scrutiny from government officials was that in March, Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko's exhibit at the same gallery was shut down by the national government. Mr. Maseko's work depicts the government-sponsored ethnic cleansings that took place in Bulawayo in the 1980's. His paintings are bold, political works, and the exhibit led to his arrest and detention. The gallery director was forced to close the exhibit -- but, rather than replace it with another exhibit, he took the daring step of covering the gallery's street-level windows with newspaper for the duration of the planned exhibition time. In that way, all passersby knew that there was something inside that they were forbidden by the government to see.
In this context of artistic repression, the VAI program was especially successful in bringing together this American artist and his Zimbabwean peers to discuss the artist's visual language for expressing the human condition. Telfort's work, entitled "When I Was 6," is a look into the personal stories of the artist's childhood in "Little Haiti" (Miami, FL) and provides a visually compelling U.S. cultural experience. Through the work, Telfort has his audience think about the cultural, social, and political issues that surround life for a child growing up in a low-income American neighborhood. His Zimbabwean audiences identified with Telfort's themes of childhood, poverty, and diversity, and came away with a better understanding of the African-American cultural experience.