Gerald Machona: When Cultures Collide, Creativity Abounds
Gerald Machona’s heritage is a complex one, layered with collisions of language, culture and customs. And there’s no better way to amplify this complexity than in marriage – especially when you’re a Shona-speaking Zimbabwean migrant married to Zulu partner and artist Sethembile Msezane, living in South Africa.
'I’ve had to navigate the traditions of marriage according to my Zulu partner’s traditional customs and laws, as well as my natal family’s ideas and expectations of what is appropriate,' explains Machona, who is refreshingly open about the challenge. 'Perhaps one of the difficulties was having to actively navigate the pressures of gender roles. Traditions of marriage in Southern Africa have mostly remained deeply entrenched in patriarchal norms, and reinforce gender-normative identities – often at the exclusion of contemporary struggles for gender equality and diversity.'
Machona’s openness around his heritage extends to his creative work – after all, his entire solo show at Cape Town’s Goodman Gallery (on now until 3 November), entitled Greener Pastures, is underpinned by the idea of 'searching for love in faraway places or nations'.
But – of course – greener pastures are rarely greener once you reach them. 'It’s become increasingly important in my work to think of the idea’s around family as extending beyond old colonial projections and classifications, and consider some of our inherited traditions as fluid and continuously shaped by new social conventions,' Machona explains. 'All at a time when Afrophobic violence and attitudes are socially prevalent. This transnational, cross-cultural experience has immersed my artistic practice into a liminal space, where I’ve had to grapple with aspects of personal and shared heritage.'
Greener Pastures is an arresting array of sculpture, installation and photography that Machona has been working on since 2014, although its birth as one cohesive body of work is more recent: part of Machona’s PhD he is busy undertaking at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. 'The title of the show only emerged in February this year,' smiles Machona. 'I read a thought-provoking article by Sandiso M(x) Blouse Ngubane reflecting on Athi-Patra Ruga, Buhlebezwe Siwani and my work and how we individually utilise the colour green in our practices. I liked the idea of using a seamless thread such as a colour to weave through the reading of these artworks, so I began searching for the common thread that tied my show together. The pursuit of greener pastures seemed to embody the impetus of the works I had accumulated.'
Another thing Athi-Patra Ruga, Buhlebezwe Siwani and Gerald Machona have in common – other than the colour green – is their commitment to catalysing important conversations through their work. 'I’d like to think that the act of shifting culture and politics through art is an important process,' nods Machona. 'But the ripple effect often takes time to influence policymaking, societal behaviour and customs. Whether the work changes one person’s perspective or a whole cultural or political imagining, I still find gratitude for the opportunity to affect that one person.' In an age of social media, though, it’s never been easier to affect change not just in one person, but on a mass scale. 'Social media means artistic ideas have the propensity to go viral,' agrees Machona. 'It’s really shortened the distance between the artist and multiple audiences.'
But for all the power of social media, there’s simply nothing like immersing yourself in an artist’s pieces in real life. Especially when they’re 3D and alive, like one of Machona’s favourite pieces from Greener Pastures – ‘Terraform’. Atop a pile of barren sand akin to a Martian landscape grow delicate cannabis trees which Machona constructed by weaving together decommissioned currencies with bronze-coated copper wire. 'It connects a potential futurity of humanity converting a barren planet to a second home and the contemporary struggles to legalise the farming of medicinal cannabis as a potential avenue for economic growth,' Machona reflects. 'This installation will continue to grow throughout the exhibition with new saplings sprouting almost daily.'
The brilliance – and dynamism – of ‘Terraform’ is just one reason to go and see the show. The possibility of awakening a new realm of social and cultural awareness is another. For if you take home one thing after immersing yourself in ‘Greener Pastures’, Machona hopes it is this: “As we individually or collectively pursue greener pastures, it is important to have an awareness of the historical attempts of this pursuit – and how they impact us contemporarily.”
Gerald Machona ‘
Decommissioned currency, copper wire, marble dust