The brief was to respond artistically to the theme of migration, to make an exhibition piece for a pop-up museum event. As I have recently been thinking about words as sounds, and being now fully immersed in our Researching Multilingually project, I saw an opportunity to explore some aspects related to these ideas. As I started making notes and poetic musings, I noticed that my creative ingredients were emerging as Shona proverbs/ poetry/ song, and English poetry. As usual I found myself facing the challenge of using Shona to communicate to a multilingual audience, whose linguistic common ground is English. Keen not to overburden the Shona poetry with translation, but also conscious of the importance of audience engagement, I decided that sounds and visuals would play a vital role in this work.
As usual I discussed ideas with my wife, Tarneem – a graphic designer and Arabic speaker – and an initial idea was to create a giant interactive passport that she would design. At the top of every page in the passport would be a proverb/phrase/word in Shona, along with an English translation in much smaller font. The reader would be encouraged to respond by writing/drawing on any page that inspired them to do so.
Now I was left with the puzzle of combining museum artefacts with my creative ingredients – a song composed by my brother and I in Shona, which I would perform here as a poem; a traditional poem and song in Shona; plus my unfinished poem in English.
My final choice of museum artefacts fell into 2 categories:
- artefacts collected from Zimbabwe, specifically personal objects that one might take on a journey
- migratory animals and birds – falcon, kestrel, 2 zebra and a wildebeest
Since it would not be possible to take the artefacts out of the museum storage, and as I was thinking about sights and sounds, I thought to make a film to incorporate all these elements. I got in touch with Simon Bishopp of Showman Media, with whom I had worked very well on filming my poem, ‘Good English’. My vision for the film was to appear as an artefact, since the theme of the project, migration, is something that I have in common with the museum objects, having originated elsewhere and ending up in Glasgow. After initial discussions, and a visit to the museum stores, we started working on the film.
This was a collaborative effort coming up with ideas for the filming. As I was an ‘artefact’ complete with museum classification label, Simon suggested I would be inanimate in the film, same as my fellow artefacts. To compliment this inanimate style shot in the museum setting, I would also be filmed as my usual animated self, to complete the film. This turned out to be a breakthrough for solving a problem I had been carrying up till this point. I still hadn’t finished the poem in English, as I struggled to find a ‘pulse’ for it. I decided that my ‘artefact’ self would only speak in Shona, and my ‘non-artefact’ self would speak in the style of a narrator doing a voice over. At this point I also decided that I would translate the Shona proverbs, but the poetry and songs would work on their own and rely on the power of performance to have an impact. My final offering was made up of the passport and the film, shown at a well-attended pop-up event in a popular café in the south side of Glasgow.
The presentation was generally well-received and I appreciated conversations I had with audience members afterwards. Some people were curious what the poetry/songs meant; some were keen to know only certain parts; some recognised points where my voice changed dramatically and related this to sound, and offered me what that suggested to them. I also got to hear other people’s migration stories, and discuss current issues and what experiences, questions and opinions people had about migration.
Being filmed alongside taxidermied animals, having to be still/lifeless but deliver the poetry and songs was a huge challenge for me – someone who is normally very animated in my performance, as I describe it ‘I perform with my whole body’. It was a conscious effort to adapt to this situation, but I found that there was a heightened intensity about the vocals/sounds, as this was my only outlet for expressing emotions carried in the words. I was also very aware of my body, and the restriction on my eyes from blinking, my hands from gesturing, my face from changing through a range of shapes and contortions – from smiling to frowning, my head from tilting back to shout something, my feet from adjusting or pacing. The filming also included me being inside a wooden crate that the artefacts are transported in. The crate was too small for me to stand in so I had to crouch and deliver a poem through a small opening. The strain on my body had an impact on how I delivered the poem and when listening back it brought a different quality to how I normally experience the poem. As I watched back the film, I noticed that there was something haunting and evocative. The fact that I was standing next to a once-living zebra (mbizi), my mum’s ancestral family symbol, added a deep emotional sense to the presentation.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Migration project, for the opportunity to be creative and to develop my own work, as well as collaborating with others. While I celebrate the success of the project and future possibilities, I am even more aware of the many questions still to be tackled and asked.