- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
Zimbabwe’s economy is in disarray: ATMs sit empty and government employees go unpaid. Last year, 35 quadrillion old Zimbabwean dollars could be traded in for just one U.S. dollar. (Due to hyperinflation, Zimbabwe began using U.S. currency in 2009.)
Clearly, 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s public image could use a makeover. But maybe revealing two new statues of himself, one of which has already been compared to a Simpsons character, wasn’t the best place to start.
The piece unveiled by Mugabe over the weekend stands about 12 feet tall and depicts the president tilted sideways, wearing his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, with one hand outstretched in salute. At the unveiling ceremony, the frail leader seemed pleased and praised the work as “wonderful art.”
But pictures of the statue immediately became a lightning rod for Zimbabwean scorn. Many took to Twitter, mocking the statue’s exaggerated features as a surreal parody of an increasingly out-of-touch leader, and comparing it to a cartoon.
I wonder what style of art that is, coz it clearly ain't a Van Gogh 😂 #MugabeStatue
— Olla Gandiwa (@ollatopher) September 12, 2016
— future millionaire (@_vxlery_) September 11, 2016
You know what… I was filled with so much outrage about a new #MugabeStatue… Until I saw it!
— Shaka Student Sisulu (@ShakaSisulu) September 12, 2016
— ✈BONG🐘 (@AFRICANlSM) September 10, 2016
— Asura (@ClivePilusa95) September 10, 2016
Other Zimbabweans, some who still back Mugabe, weren’t so amused with the artistic interpretation, taking it as a literal insult to their president and country.
— Mpumi Rocky Ngcobo (@MpumiRocky) September 10, 2016
Of course, the brouhaha over the statue was a sideshow to deeper public discontent recently on display in Zimbabwe’s streets.
Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, is one of the longest-serving African heads of state. His past two elections were accompanied by accusations of vote-rigging and intimidation.
With the economy in crisis, the government has recently begun seizing land, both to prop up empty coffers and discourage political opposition. It has also announced plans to issue a substitue american currency, fueling fear of a return to hyperinflation.
This past summer, protests and strikes — usually a no-go due to brutal government crackdowns — gained momentum, with Zimbabweans demanding new elections, including safeguards for transparency. The police attacked protesters with batons, tear gas, and water-cannon trucks.
The artist behind the statue, Dominic Benhura, is a Zimbabwean sculptor who has exhibited his other work internationally. He is known for simple mixed-media stone carvings that fashion human forms from abstract shapes.
After the storm of criticism, Benhura defended the piece as unique and in line with his signature style. “That sculpture was never meant to look exactly as the President’s image,” he told Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper. “This is the art that has made my name and this is the style that differentiates my pieces.”
The price of the new statues wasn’t revealed — but in the past, Mugabe’s administration hasn’t been shy about using taxpayer dollars extravagantly. In 2014, while the nation was $11 billion in debt, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Mugabe spent $16 million in taxpayer funds to cover costs for his 90th birthday bash, his daughter’s wedding, and giant statues of himself that he commissioned from North Korea.
And in July, it emerged that Mugabe’s vice president was running up a bill of $1,000 a night living in the presidential suite of Zimbabwe’s most swank hotel. That’s roughly the yearly income of an average Zimbabwean.
Photo credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images