The figure of Robert Mugabe looms large over late-20th and early-21st-century African history. The former president of Zimbabwe was ousted in what amounted to a de facto coup in November 2017, but his legacy – and his image – lingers in the memory.
This image also haunts The Portrait, a series by Zimbabwean documentary photographer Davina Jogi. An examination of power, space, and memory, the focus of Davina’s series is on a specific image of the now-deposed leader. Under his rule, business owners in the country were required by law to hang an official portrait of Mugabe in the shops and offices.
Initially supplied free of charge, a Newsday report in 2011 claimed that youth members of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party were forcing businesses to buy them for “fundraising” purposes. Coincidentally, it was in 2011 that Davina took her first photo of Mugabe’s photo: “I was photographing a story on African beauty and wandered into a beauty shop in downtown Harare and, as I took some pictures of a customer, I noticed the incongruity of the president placed among the wigs and demurely poised ladies on the wall,” Davina recalls.
It was in the immediate post-coup moment that Davina took most of the images that make up The Portrait. Describing them as “banal symbols of his power,” Davina notes that many of the public-facing posters were defaced or torn down. The ones that remain, the ones that cling sadly to the walls of dentist surgeries, galleries, and stationery shops, emanate a resigned sense of melancholy. “These portraits show how Mugabe’s presence was inescapable and pervasive,” Davina says, “but also on some level mundane and meaningless.”
Framed badly, hung shoddily, occasionally hidden by a flag, and often stuffed out of the way, the portraits themselves draw attention to space and absence, and how the sudden introduction to those things in our daily life is often a disquieting, discomforting sensation. “Most people were nervous and didn’t want to be held accountable for making some kind of unintentional political statement by allowing me to photograph,” says Davina. “Mugabe had only just resigned and Mnangagwa had not yet been inaugurated as president, so it wasn’t even clear if you were allowed to take down the picture.”
She notes that, somewhat curiously, “people were far more nervous of me taking a picture of an empty space than of the portrait itself,” theorising that, “in the vacuum left behind by the ousting of an entrenched political autocracy, no one quite knows what the rules are or how they should act.”
Not every Mugabe image in her archive was caught intentionally. An unwavering social, political, and visual fixture in the Zimbabwean landscape, it isn’t surprising that many of her photos feature the timeless image of a man who’d decided to use photography as a means of unhooking him from the ravages of ageing. Robert Mugabe was many things, but humble wasn’t one of them. “He once compared himself to Jesus on state radio,” the photographer says.
Davina, a graduate of South Africa’s Market Photo Workshop scheme, says she was inspired by Nicholas Righetti’s book Love Me Turkmenistan, which explored the cult of personality that clung to Saparmurat Niazov. The leader of the central Asian republic between 1985-2006, Niazov merrily plastered his own visage over billboards, murals, posters, boxes of spaghetti and bottles of vodka. “The supposed importance of the images and the person are tainted by their everyday placement,” says Davina. “The repetition is not only farcical, it’s just plain old boring.”
Davina’s photos are anything but. Sparse, lyrical, they put history into context.
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