Afronaut vs Afronaut

In the 1960s, in Africa, an unlikely space mission was born. Edward Mukuka Nkoloso was a science teacher and revolutionary who envisioned a Zambian space programme, and recruited young people to train as “Afronauts.”  He claimed he was planning to send 16 year old “space girl” Matha Mwamba, a missionary, and two specially trained cats to Mars to make contact with the “primitive natives” who lived there. Nkoloso created inventive exercises to put his teenaged Afronauts through their paces, including; use of a rope swing, rolling down a hill inside an oil drum, and walking on their hands (Serpell, 2017). He attracted credulous international attention from newspaper reporters who mocked his efforts.  But despite the fact that Nkoloso’s space programme occurred at a time when Northern Rhodesia was making its transformation into the Republic of Zambia, during the cold war, at the height of the Russian American space race, the likelihood of it being a satirical mimicry wasn’t much considered at the time, perhaps because of Nkoloso’s perceived sincerity.

In 2011 Cristina de Middel, a Spanish photographer, created a photo-book  The Afronauts (2011) about the Zambian Space mission.  De Middel, a Fine Arts educated photojournalist, reimagined the scenarios, based on descriptions of Nkoloso’s training (Shore, 2014, p. 242). Her series inhabits a place between fact and fiction; it ‘documents’ the mission using staged photographs, from settings outside Zambia, some half a century after the fact.

In 2012 Gerald Machona, a multimedia artist born in Zimbabwe and living in South Africa, created a video People from far away (2012), and an installation / sculpture work that appeared in the 2016 Sydney Biennale.  For the installation he created two full astronaut suits, Uri Afronaut (2012) and Ndiri Afronaut (2012), of decommissioned currency from Zimbabwe and South Africa.  His work explores ideas of migration and alienation: “Relating the experience of migration to space exploration, Machona highlights the unevenly distributed titular rights distinguishing expatriate from migrant, the familiar from the alien” (Pedley, 2016, p. 262).

The ideas of Edward Mukuka Nkoloso have inspired these two artists to take his space mission in different directions. In the process they have incorporated their own interpretations and their projects have picked up their own readings based not only on the subtle differences in ideas, medium, and execution, but filtered through the perspectives of the artists. Whether the original space programme was fact or fiction, through the artists it becomes metaphor… and metaphor is a kind of truth, right?


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