Inside the outsider
If you see a man dressed in a spacesuit made of Zimbabwean dollars, he’s likely to be Gerald Machona. Charl Blignaut chats to the rising artist
We’re at the Grahamstown opening of an exhibition called Making Way and a young man from Zambia is talking to us in Mandarin.
I’m told he’s chatting about his time spent studying in China where, to be less of an outsider, he learned the local language. We’re the outsiders now. We don’t understand a word he’s saying.
He joined the genteel gathering pushing a trolley stacked with China bags. Now he unzips one and a man emerges in a mask of banknotes. A hawker, he quickly displays his goods.
There’s a wallet, a cap, a belt and the like – with a twist. They’re stitched with Zimbabwean currency, a trademark of Gerald Machona, a 26-year-old Grahamstown artist.
“Cheap, cheap, cheap. Buy, buy, buy!” he exclaims. But there’s another twist. He won’t accept money. Instead, you must barter. Make him something from what’s in your pockets, sing him a national anthem, anything but money.
The opportunity for free work by a talented young artist is intoxicating. But I sing terribly and I’m scared of making a fool of myself. I hide behind my notebook, my heart racing slightly.
It’s a different kind of racing to a Steven Cohen or Athi-Patra Ruga heart attack. Our performance art is known for its public confrontations.
Just the day before, also on Making Way, Ruga appeared on the street in monster heels and pink stockings, his body a giant ball of balloons. As he walked they burst, revealing him, and bleeding paint on to pavements and colonial monuments.
It was a subversive act in which Ruga was claiming his right to public space. He was testing the limits of our tolerance of outsiders.
“Is this creature allowed to be here? If not, what about migrant labourers and African immigrants?” he asks.
It’s a question Machona has spent his career exploring. Back in the gallery, I find I’m scribbling down praise for his performance.
He’s neatly complicated the Afro-Chinese discourse by selling products made in China from resources mined in Africa back to Africans.
But more than that, he’s tipped the scales of the gallery system, replacing money with creative exchange. A brilliant anti-capitalist act.
He nods and smiles when I tell him this. He appreciates my reading, but the work had deeper intentions.
What Machona really does is test his otherness as a legal alien – a kwerekwere – in a xenophobic land. He uses ritual masquerade to do so.
“I was born on this small iron ore mine called Buchwa in Zimbabwe. I guess the reason I started to use performance is because of this town.”
The mine, where his father worked in personnel and his mother at a guest house, attracted migrant workers from across the world.
“You found a lot of Indians. And Chinese – their government sent prisoners to work on mines. But the larger groups were Malawians and South Africans.”
He was intrigued to witness the Malawian miners parading in traditional masks, a practice referred to as nyau.
“They basically dance and sing songs, but there’s an entire secretive mythology around it.”
Of course, such cultures of display are common on mines across Africa. They preserve culture and construct identity.
When Machona first arrived in South Africa in 2006 to study at UCT, he felt at home. “We had Afrikaans-speaking South Africans at my school. South African music was a big part of Zimbabwe’s pop culture.”
He began making sculptural objects using Zim dollars, investigating the collapse of the economy and what it took to buy a loaf of bread at home.
“I wanted people to understand why Zimbabweans were migrating. I became obsessed with telling the story of the migrant.”
Then the xenophobic attacks happened. “That blew my entire project into the air. Even though I was in Cape Town, I became cautious. I actually changed how I dressed so I could blend in. I picked up isiXhosa lingo so that I would seem local.”
The attacks impacted fundamentally on his art.
“I said okay, so now I’m the foreigner in the situation. It took me back to my childhood and the foreigners on the mine.
“Those Malawians who we used to call names, what did they do to deal with us? I started looking at nyau and discovered it was also a way of countering xenophobia, questioning locals about the idea of the foreigner, the unknown.”
With a particular political elegance, Machona began bringing his sculptures to life by creating tribal masks of currency and wearing them. “I title each performance with the prefix ndiri, which means ‘I am’.”
Ndiri Cross-Border Trader stood above a bus port in Harare and the wind scattered the banknotes from his head.
“I started looking at the occupations African foreign nationals take up in South Africa.” Ndiri Barman, Ndiri Deejay and Ndiri Bouncer were born. “As Ndiri Barber, I shaved everyone’s head the same style. Chiskop.” This was partly about trying to pass as a South African – who generally keep their hair shorter – but again it had a twist.
Machona took three volunteers, two black and one white. He shaved one black and one white head. “Now who is more similar? Do you compare skin colour or baldness? Who is the outsider? Twenty-one of the 62 killed in the attacks were South African nationals.
“For me, it started a discourse about Afrophobia. African nationals were targeted but white foreign nationals were seen as tourists or business investors. I wanted to look at the process of how we are profiled.”
Which is how I came to meet Ndiri Vendor in Grahamstown on a show that has now travelled to Joburg.
“For my master’s, I intend to create an entire spacesuit out of currency,” says Machona in parting. “For me, the spacesuit is a metaphor about having to adapt to a foreign space that is not designed for you. South Africa is not designed for foreign nationals from Africa.”
» Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China runs at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until March 28