IT appears the creative sector continues to suffer death by a thousand cuts with the long absence of the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) as well as the lengthy ban on live performances.
Hifa has not staged a show for the last three years due to donor fatigue and the situation has become dire after Covid-19 dealt a big blow to the sector.
The government imposed a ban on gatherings and events in line with World Health Organisation regulations to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The arts sector has been thrown into disarray as it thrives on live audiences. Artists are now resigned to an uncertain fate, coming to terms with an unfortunate realisation that they will be the last to re-open.
Despite all these challenges, Maria Wilson, the executive director of Hifa, remains hopeful that the festival will stir to life at some point.
“There are people who will say oh well, Hifa was good while it lasted, but that is wrong. Hifa is important in the arts and culture development and it has diverse audiences.
“Zimbabwean artists would interact with the international community by way of exhibitions and artistic expressions. I have to have hope. I have invested 21 years of my life into Hifa and I would love to get it back again,” Wilson said.
Hifa is a big-budget showcase which entails the creative deployment of massive human and capital resources.
Wilson explained what needs to be done to revive Hifa.
“Firstly, we started planning beginning in September 2020 and, when we looked at it, the situation was getting worse with the coronavirus.
“Then we said we need live performances, but we knew we could not do it because a lot of events have been held virtually so we said: No, this is not who we are! So we took the decision that it was not the right time.
“From an economic point of view, 70% of our funding comes from companies and we noted that most companies were faced with viability issues due to Covid-19.
“As you might be aware, the donor organisations are almost 100% focused on Covid-19 and funding arts and culture is not a priority at the moment.”
Wilson said while Covid-19 promoted the use of information technology, it had ripple effects on arts and culture.
“As Hifa, we need bigger audiences because going virtual is not the best way to do it. I am really concerned about arts and culture in Zimbabwe because even internationally live shows require live audiences and they are not doing live shows anymore.
“Secondly, in Third World it is difficult to do virtual shows because you’re not guaranteed of WiFi connectivity. And the victim of all this is the artist,” she said.
Asked if Hifa has engaged the Arts ministry with regards to funding, Wilson said the government was seized with Covid-19.
“Government is battling Covid-19 and the last thing they would do is to invest in arts and culture. So it is our hope that they manage the disease faster and get everyone vaccinated. There is a media storm regarding the vaccine, then next you hear there is a third wave and new strains. So if this media storm could calm down, then (everything) goes back to normal,” she said.
However, for Hifa, the challenges go beyond Covid-19.
“Hifa’s greatest block is always financial. Therefore, in order to ascertain whether the festival can happen, I need some guarantees from Hifa’s major financial backers, which is the Zimbabwe corporate community.
“In this time of terribly confusing economics, the corporate community are unsure whether they can back Hifa to levels that Hifa needs to put an event that can have the label ‘Hifa’,” said Maria.
“In terms of artists, both visiting and local, are keen to perform but, again, need some financial re-assurances. This is very difficult to give at this time,” she said.
The last time Hifa failed to take place was in 2002 and it was also because of lack of adequate funding.
In 2016, there were mini-festivals and activities at St George’s and Reps Theatre.
The six-day festival would have marked its 20th anniversary this year.
Maria is on record as saying the show thrives on collaborations and partnerships.
Both local and foreign partners are crucial towards making a successful Hifa programme.
In essence, the postponement has dealt a big blow to the creative industry since the six-day cultural and art extravaganza is a huge platform for showcasing Zimbabwe’s uninhibited talent.
There are also other spin-offs for the festival which include boosting Harare’s tourism as up to 200 foreign artists and between 1 000 to 1 300 local performing artists converge for the week-long fiesta.
Hifa also feeds into downstream industry for service providers who support or work with the festival.
Over and above this, Hifa has made impact in the development of Zimbabwe’s socio-economic sphere as well as shaping the artistic discourse.