ViPAA alumnus engages with Afrophobia at the prestigious Venice Biennale

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Fine Art alumnus, Gerald Machona, who was a member of the Visual and Performing Arts of Africa (ViPAA) Humanities Focus Area from 2011 to 2013, has been selected to represent South Africa in the prestigious Venice Biennale, which opens on the 9th of May 2015. The South African pavilion of the biennale is being curated by Christopher Till and Jeremy Rose of Mashabane and Rose, and the exhibition is titled, What Remains is Tomorrow.

According to the Mail & Guardian (April 26, 2015), current issues of xenophobia will feature at Venice.  Machona’s contribution at Venice is based on his MFA exhibition, Vabvakure: people from far away (2013) at Rhodes University, which featured the installation and film ‘Ndiri Afronaut’ (I am an Afronaut) that played on constructions of ‘foreigners’.

 The following is an extract of the opening speech for Vabvakure by Professor Ruth Simbao, leader of the Visual and Performing Arts of Africa research team:

 “Machona uses decommissioned Zimbabwean dollars as the key medium in his work, and subtly references the performance of the Chew nyau masquerade. This powerful performance form has travelled with the Chewa diaspora to Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Growing up in Zimbabwe, Gerald witnessed nyau masqueraders, who were revered and often feared by audiences. Armed with the power of their performance, Chewa performers living in Zimbabwe sometimes used their performances to negotiate xenophobic attitudes towards them and to resist names, such as Mabwidi or Mablantyre, that were directed at them. In Gerald’s work, he draws a parallel between the historical use of this traditional masquerade to mediate ‘strangeness’ and challenge xenophobic attitudes, and his own performance art that engages with contemporary forms of xenophobia, or rather Afrophobia, directed at Zimbabweans and other African nationals based in South Africa.

Gerald’s use of decommissioned Zimbabwean dollars as an aesthetic medium registers the economic meltdown that occurred in Zimbabwe, forcing economic migrants to move to South Africa and elsewhere. Based as a student in South Africa, Machona developed a series of characters that reflected the occupations stereotypically associated with certain African foreign nationals in South Africa, such as the ‘cleaner’, the ‘barman’, or the ‘cross-border trader’. Each work in this series is labeled with the Shona prefix ‘ndiri’ meaning, ‘I am’, such as the work, ‘Ndiri barman’ (‘I am a barman’). Following the nyau tradition of subversively fighting imposed forms of labeling, Machona’s performance characters resist stereotyping by embracing and subverting forms of labeling that seem to limit one to one’s occupation and so-called foreignness.

Extending this tongue-in-cheek play as well as his subtle reference to nyau masking and the Gule Wamkulu tradition, Machona developed a work titled ‘Ndiri Afronaut’ (I am an Afronaut). By referencing both a traditional masquerade form and the futuristic fantasy of Afrofuturism, Machona holds the mirror of fantasy up to various imagined concepts: the fantasy of ‘the nation’, the fantasy of the ‘insider’, and the fantasy of the ‘traditional African versus the futuristic European’.

A story unfolds in Machona’s film, as a so-called alien falls from the sky, landing in a foreign place. Again, referencing Chewa tradition, this opening scene alludes to a Chewa creation myth in which Chiuta-God sends a man and a woman down from the sky. Dressed in an astronaut’s suit that is beautifully created out of Zimbabwean dollars, this character, Ndiri Astronaut, represents an African foreign national landing in South Africa, which, to the ‘foreigner’, is seen as an inhospitable place.

In the middle of the desert, this out-of-space character finds a flower, a Protea, and begins his search for water for the survival of this lone form of life. Although the Ndiri Afronaut character carefully nurtures the Protea (a South African symbol associated with ‘indigeneity, national heritage and natural rootedness’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001:638)), this national symbol was not always considered to be native to the land. As Jean and John Comaroff point out, ‘in 1953 an authority on the subject actually described fynbos as an invaderwhose expansion threatened the mixed grassveld of the southerwestern Cape. What is now said of aliens was being said, not long ago, of this natural treasure’ (ibid).

 In Machona’s film, this character, Ndiri Astronaut, meets another figure, also dressed in an astronaut’s suit made from Zimbabwean dollars. She is named Uri Afronaut (you are an Afronaut), and represents a South African citizen. Instead of facing stereotyped dichotomies (‘I am a barman, you are a client’, or ‘I am a cleaner, you are a boss’), the character is suddenly faced with a mirror image: ‘Ndiri Afronaut, Uri Afronaut’  (I am an Afronaut, You are an Afronaut). While the two characters in the film can both be read as ‘aliens’ (out-of- space creatures), they are both the same, for the distance between I and you dissolves, recalling Julia Kristeva’s (1991:1) words, ‘Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity... By recognizing him within ourselves; we are spared detesting him in himself... The foreigner comes in when the conscious of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners...’.

 Ndiri Afronaut. Uri Afronaut. You are the hidden face in my identity”.

 Other artists featured at the South African Pavilion of the Venice Biennale include Serge Nitegeka, Willem Boshoff, Haroon Gunn-Salie, Nandipha Mntambo, Robin Rhode, Jo Ratcliffe, Jeremy Wafer, Diane Victor and Brett Murray.