Objects are unreliable repositories of biography. If you want to really know what compels Serge Alain Nitegeka, Gerald Machona and Maurice Mbikayi, you need to take an early morning walk, as the sky slowly morphs from rhinestone-studded black to bruised indigo, along Frost Avenue, a cracked tar road in Musina, South Africa’s northernmost town. Every weekday morning at around 5am, young men and women in their 20s, many from Zimbabwe – although it is not uncommon to encounter Mozambicans, Burundians, Congolese or, occasionally, large groups of emaciated Somali men with malarial eyes – queue outside the local Refugee Reception Centre. Bureaucracy and discipline coexist here. Women with children enter the gated compound first, followed by single women. Men are also differentiated: first-time asylum seekers form a separate line to those renewing their temporary refugee permits.
Nitegeka, an athletic Burundian artist living and working in Johannesburg, is intimately familiar with this regimen. In 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, the bearded Hutu head of the Burundian state, was assassinated, plunging his birth country into a decade-long civil war. Nitegeka, who was 11 at the time, fled with his family to Rwanda. But the coffee-rich central African state imploded a year later, prompting further migrations. Nitegeka – who is tall enough to almost look John Baldessari in the eye – spent two weeks queuing at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He traded his calculator for biscuits. drc is an unstable state; Nitegeka moved to Kenya; he has lived in South Africa for the past decade.
The precarious condition of African migrants, a point of deliberation in works by Francis Alÿs and Isaac Julien, among other artists, is both a raw material and motivating concern for Nitegeka. It is intrinsic to the large geometrical bitumen-coated sculptures he has installed at the entrances to exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg – and is due to repeat in Paris, at the Palais de Tokyo and Maison Rouge, in June. Resembling a monochromatic version of the game of jackstraws, his architecturally proportioned sculptures do not prevent entry as much as disrupt it, directing the viewer’s body to ‘rehearse and perform certain movements’, as Nitegeka once put it.
In 2010, a year after completing his fine art undergraduate degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Nitegeka created a series of small wooden obstacles on the stairs of an inner-city building hosting a temporary exhibition. Subtle reminders rather than all-out impediments, these cheap utilitarian wood obstacles are the bridge to a similarly slight, albeit potent intervention. In December 2011, after numerous thwarted attempts, Nitegeka contracted a belligerent truck owner to deliver 100 handmade pine stools to a site on an open plot of land in central Pretoria. As in Musina, groups of foreign migrants arrive here in the early morning to queue standing outside the local Refugee Reception Centre.
After some argy-bargy with security officials, Nitegeka was allowed to distribute his chairs. ‘It was a small attempt at giving significance to the asylum seekers, to humanize them, to give them a bit of dignity,’ Nitegeka told Voice of America last year. Aimed at addressing an evident need, his slight and unvarnished intervention elegantly clarified all those anchor concepts – ‘displacement’, ‘contingency’, ‘informality’ – that form part of the lexicon of African migration.
A similar fragility and roughshod directness marks the performance work of Gerald Machona, who, like Nitegeka, is still completing his MFA.
Born in Zvishane, a mining town in south-central Zimbabwe, Machona currently lives in Grahamstown, a South African university city. In 2010 he journeyed by car to Harare to produce a new performance work, opting for a location on a rooftop overlooking Road Port Terminal, a bus station centrally implicated in the massive dispersal of impoverished Zimbabweans. For his performance, Ita Kuti Kunaye (Make it Rain), which reprised the role of cross-border trader, he wore a black suit and mask fashioned out of Zimbabwe’s obsolete currency – the mask was partly inspired by a Shona lyric from a Bongo Maffin song, ‘Mother I am going to Joburg with paper money.’
While performing his improvised dance, which drew on his memory of a masked ritual performed by ethnic Chewa men from Malawi in the mine compounds, a crowd gathered. Harare’s notorious cid took note. Machona was promptly detained and beaten. He has since deployed his birth country’s useless currency to make origami-like paper diamonds and masks, which he has worn in gallery performances while role-playing stereotyped immigrant occupations such as barman, pool cleaner, barber and bouncer. He should add artist to that list.
In 2005, armed with a solid grounding in academic painting courtesy of Kinshasa’s Académie des Beaux-Arts, Maurice Mbikayi moved to Cape Town. He preferred its lazy cosmopolitanism to Johannesburg, which he describes as ‘frantic’. To survive, he supplied local décor galleries with cubistic and abstract paintings. Interested in the city’s hybrid dance-performance tradition, which owes greatly to the activities of Jay Pather, he attended a workshop. ‘When I came here, I wanted to learn something more. I wanted to study new media, film, video,’ Mbikayi told me shortly after bandaging himself head to toe and riding on a horse through central Cape Town. His rough-and-ready Beuysian performance was not just about surviving a debilitating back injury, but also remembering what it means to be fragile human cargo from a destroyed society.