One of the most notable aspects of the work of Gerald Machona, a Zimbabwe-born multidisciplinary artist, is his innovative use of foreign currency (particularly decommissioned Zimbabwean dollars) as an aesthetic material. We see this in works such as ‘Ndiri Afronaut’ or ‘Ndiri Cross Border Trader’ – which both formed part of his solo exhibition Vabvakure (People from Far Away). Created in response to the violent xenophobic attacks that swept South Africa in 2008, the exhibition explored the notion of ‘foreignness’ or what it feels like to be a ‘foreigner’ living in South Africa.
As one of the artists exhibiting at the FNB Joburg Art Fair this year, we spoke to Machona to find out more about his artistic background, his use of currency and the recurring themes in his work.
What role did creativity play in your upbringing?
Growing up it was an outlet and a way to escape, where one could re-imagine an alternate reality.
When did you realise that you wanted to be an artist, and how did you go about pursuing this?
I can’t really remember an exact moment when I realised I wanted to be an artist, it’s something I have always just been. Even when I considered other professions I always found myself engaging in some form of artistry. So, after completing my A Levels, I enrolled at the Michaelis School of Arts where I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art (new media) in 2009. Later, I received a scholarship from Rhodes University, where I completed my Master’s in Fine Art (sculpture) in 2013.
In what ways does your background influence the work you’re creating now?
By background I assume you are referring to place? I was born in Zimbabwe, but I have been living in the diaspora for over 7 years now. The majority of that time has been spent in South Africa. Both these spaces have influenced the artistic concerns, processes and politics behind my work.
Tell us about your use of currency as an aesthetic material…
In some of my sculptures I have used decommissioned currency as a material. Initially I started using the material in an attempt to convey the difficulties of the hyper-inflationary environment that Zimbabweans were living under from 2000 – 2009. In 2008, when the service delivery protests in South Africa turned xenophobic, the material became a very interesting way to speak to some of the underlying issues of class, migration and nationalism.
Your solo exhibition, Vabvakure (People from Far Away), negotiates the condition of xenophobia. How have you endeavoured to bring about meaningful shifts in people’s perception of ‘foreigners’ or what constitutes ‘foreign’ through your art?
Central to this exhibition is a short film with the same name, People from Far Away. This film was also screened during the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, as part of an outdoor drive-in cinema called Analogue Eye. My hope is that through this medium my work will reach a wider audience and challenge people’s perception of foreigners and the experience of foreignness.
To what extent is your work a product of your own personal experiences?
I try to tell stories through my work, sometimes they are mine and sometimes they are not.
The masked masquerade, or “Nyau”, is repeated throughout your work. What is the significance of this?
Nyau is a masked masquerade performed by the Chewa people who are synonymous to Malawi, but are found throughout Southern Africa. In Zimbabwe, the Chewa utilised this practice to challenge local perceptions of their identity as ‘aliens’ and challenged xenophobic attitude towards them as ‘foreigners’ to that social landscape. In my work, I have appropriated these masqueraded performance strategies to negotiate my personal experience as an ‘alien’ living in South Africa and one of the ways I have done this is masking. The absence of a facial identity also allows my work to discursively engage with the universal experience of foreignness. We are all foreign to someone, somewhere at some point in our lifetime and the works try to connect with that idea. With global trends of migration and naturalisation, we are now faced with rapidly diversified notions of collective identity, where traditional concepts such as nationhood are no longer simply about where you are born.
Sculpture, performance, photography and film all form part of your artistic practice. What do you enjoy about this multidisciplinary approach?
In my artistic practice I utilise the medium that best conveys the idea. The process of making, then, becomes about evoking some emotion within a viewer. I enjoy that element of it.
What will you be exhibiting at the FNB Joburg Art Fair?
A one meter long, functional Rubik’s cube.
What are you currently working on?
A collaboration with a band called The Brother Moves On. I am busy designing headdresses for one of their on stage performances.
Gerald Machona is represented by the Goodman Gallery, who have provided all the images used here. Find out more about his work at: www.goodman-gallery.com/artists/geraldmachona