Visual artist Lucia Nhamo and Zimbabwe’s trillion dollar currency

Visual artist Lucia Nhamo and Zimbabwe’s trillion dollar currency

Zimbabwe’s period of hyperinflation, caused a seismic shift amongst the thinking of its young adults. According to Zimbabwean visual artist Lucia Nhamo, there was a realisation that the real story was not being told within or outside of the country. For that reason, the 28-year-old sought to make videos, which explored these counter narratives.

Given the severe shortages of basic goods like milk and bread during that period: “politics became very real to me in a way that it hadn’t been before,” she says, “because you can see this very direct relationship with what you are seeing and what the politicians are saying”.

FreeFall3June 2009 saw Zimbabwe phase out its local currency, amidst the introduction of a $100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note and inflation rates of 500 billion percent in 2008. A multi-currency system is now used with many favouring the US dollar and South African Rand.

Her video and sound installations Portrait of Decade: Zimbabwe 199-2009 was shown at Bamako Encounters’ African Biennale of Photography. She talks about politics in Zimbabwe since the adoption of the US dollar and what the looming threat of instability has come to symbolise amongst Zimbabwe’s citizens.

When and how did your interest in digital begin?

It’s something I carried on in school. I went to Wellesley college in Massachusetts for my undergraduate education. And that’s where I started to take some classes in the studio art department. After school I worked in Boston at a PBS documentary production company. And I also worked at the ICA and that made me decide that I wanted to carry on with video within the context of the art world as opposed to going to film school.

Why is video important in your work?FreeFall10

I was really fascinated by the medium. Coming from Zimbabwe where there was a lot of state media at the time and a lot of propaganda at the time. I always tried to communicate movement in my work and so video became a really great way to finally get to incorporate that – certainly in undergrad. Video then became part of installations or video became broken down into thinking about multiples and frames and translating that into certain printmaking projects.

Explain your exhibit for Bamako Encounters’ African Biennale?

They chose my Wellesley thesis video. Its called Portrait of a Decade. It’s a meditation on Zimbabwe from 1999 to 2009 and I think I felt when I was making the work we had reached a point where we could take a breather and look back [at that period of instability].

Tell us about your work Free Fall: A Chronology of the Zimbabwe Dollar?

Free Fall is basically an animation installation, it’s an extension of the hundred trillion dollar note – the money counting piece from 2014. In that one I had the images of rocks on the money falling and so technically I wanted to do something else with the rocks. I wanted to make them fall and so they actually float in the air in a turbulent state. Even-though we are using the US dollar now and we are not actually using the [Zimbabwean] money there is still this sense of is it going to come back? It’s this spectre that looms above the psyche so Free Fall was the threat of the return of a defunct currency.


How were you hoping audiences would engage with it?

The idea of Free Fall is that hopefully it creates this warped sense of reality. To look at the monitor and to know that the destination is nowhere.

Talk us through your video for the Hundred Trillion Dollar Note?

This was the first Zimbabwean currency piece, done in 2014. The idea was that you walk into the gallery space, you see this zero halliburton case, filled with these stacks of money and the idea was that people come over, and pick up the money and activate the piece at the counter. They watch Patience the attendant put it through the money counter or they can do it for themselves. [Then] the person sees the rocks falling.

Patience would also show you an original trillion dollar note and then a US dollar bill. You may have seen a documentary about US dollars in Zimbabwe, they get very dirty because they are passed around a lot. Also I think the plane only goes once or twice a year to change over the money. So basically you can get money that’s really really dirty in contrast to this trillion dollar note that has hardly circulated and is so pristine. A lot of business transactions in Zimbabwe in those days were electronic transfer, because you don’t really want to be holding cash that’s losing value. So that was just a visual compare and contrast.


Do you make a conscious decision to reference Zimbabwe in your work?

Its never been oh I’ve got to make work about Zim. None of my work is like that. It’s been such an integral part of my experience. I came of age during that hectic decade. In 2006 I was 18. Politics became very real to me in a way that it hadn’t been before, because you can see this very direct relationship with what you are seeing on TV and what the politicians are saying and the propaganda jingles, while the price of bread is going up again and there’s no milk.

I became interested in this notion of counter narratives that are silent or suppressed. I was really frustrated by the fact that in Zim during that time you had this really dominant state narrative and then when I was outside of Zim in the States, you’d think it would be better but there was just another kind of state narrative that was not the kind of narrative that I felt was relevant, being an actual citizen, and having lived through some of the stuff. So you never hear the kind of narratives that I think are important to hear and so I think of my work as a sort of counterpoint to the dominant stuff that’s out there.


What themes do you try to convey in your work?

If there was a single unifying theme it would be subversion.

Can you sum up your work in two sentences?

I would say that I’m interested in power and its subversion and doing that through performance, animation, printmaking and sculpture.

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