Fòcas Scotland is delighted to announce that we have been awarded the new Art new Audiences (nAnA) grant, through the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme to produce Body of Land. Body of Land is a collaborative residency exchange between Scottish-Zimbabwean artist Sekai Machache and the Kenyan artist Awuor Onyango. Over the next 12 months, Machache and Onyango will explore stories that celebrate what binds and splits the body, spirit, land and social self across contemporary African femininities that are at once rooted and displaced. Fòcas caught up with Sekai about her practice. 

© Sekai Machache from the series ‘Kin’

Sekai Machache is a multi-media artist born in Zimbabwe and based in Dundee. As a person of African origin raised in Scotland, her work explores W.E. Dubois’ notion of ‘double consciousness,’ which addresses what it is to have African heritage and live in the West. Machache has twice been a shortlisted in Scotland’s Jill Todd Award, and is also co-founding member of the Yon Afro Collective. 

F: Sekai, you’re an artist based in Dundee, where you’re currently engaged in a residency at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. You work in a lot of media – film, for example, and your projects always involve your own deeply personal writing. But you seem to gravitate most often to photography. Why is that?

S: I’m someone who works on a number of projects at the same time with a lot of new ideas forming constantly and I have found that working with digital photography has allowed me to take an idea from its genesis to its completion a lot quicker than with other media. I find that photography also allows me to inject this otherworldly quality to my work. There is always an element of realism and surrealism in every project I complete. However, I am reluctant to consider myself a photographer in the fullest sense of the word as my work involves a range of supporting practices that shape the work overall. For example, when I was working on Mashavi I spent months braiding hair and drawing. This helped me to formulate my ideas along with research, reading and writing but ultimately the work became a performance to camera and finally a series of photographs.

© Sekai Machache & Bryndis Blackadder from the series ‘Mashavi’

F: Some of your projects – like Invocation and Mashavi – use figures from Indian and African faith or ritual to explore, sometimes quite playfully, your identity and feelings about how society perceives black femininity; why are these figures such a vital part of your work?

S: I read recently that History relates to what has been or has come before whereas Myth relates to what has always been and will always be. I feel that in utilising these mythological figures and the ideas that they evoke, I am able to reflect something that is true or unearth that which has been obfuscated from view for some time.

For example: The Shavi figure in the Mashavi series is based on a Shona principle but relates to many other similar figures across the African spiritual landscape that correlate in some form to the shadow aspect of self or the notion of the forgotten and wandering spirits that guard and influence the living. In this way I utilise myth to interpret my understanding of the very real experience of liminality that I experience in my daily life and artistic practice. Invocation similarly draws from the myth of the goddess Kali to extrapolate the issue of colourism (or cast systems) that favour lighter skinned women and mis-represent dark skinned women as violent aggressors. In this way I point to the notion that ‘if even the creator goddess Kali, from whom all the universe was brought into being is mis-represented as angry, aggressive and violent’ by the western mis-reading of her form then does it follow that this flawed thinking has been attributed to dark skinned black women to the same capacity? These false notions and tropes that do not afford women like myself our fullest humanity and are damaging as they are pervasive.

© Sekai Machache from the series ‘Invocation’

F: You’ve suffered from insomnia, haven’t you, and some of your work explores sleep, your own dreamscapes, Freud and Jung. Your pictures look dreamlike too. How important do you feel the subconscious is to you, creatively, in exploring your roots in Africa and your life in Scotland?

S: I feel as though the core of my practice is this investigation into self and the subconscious. My issues in pursuit of sleep have presented themselves as various medical conditions that I’ve had to manage for most of my life which has been at times overwhelming. So as an artist it was sort of imperative that I try to excavate these experiences. I’ve always found that I do my best thinking at night during these often-long bouts of sleeplessness, as difficult as they have been they have also been a source of great inspiration. I’ve always been most interested in imagery that leaves a sense of the mystic or points towards something missing, something intangible and undefinable. I feel that by using photography which can be used to definitively capture truth in a way that obscures truth I am pointing towards the liminality and banality of truth. I feel that there is an ascribed identity that all people of African descent carry whether we identify with it or not in the western context. We are othere’d and exoticized, seen as from another realm entirely, a realm of shadow and dark magik, voudou and superstition. The authentic African as defined through the tinted lens of the white gaze is implicitly indistinguishable from what Jung defined as the notion of the shadow self.

F: Scotland has never – I don’t think – done a show like Body of Land, which celebrates contemporary lens-based artists both from Africa and the African diaspora. Street level Photoworks, one of our partners on the project, showed the wonderful work of Maud Sulter, a Ghanaian Scot, as a retrospective in 2014. How do you feel about Sulter’s legacy?

S: Well first of all I feel incredibly humbled to have been asked to bring my practice to a project that is potentially the first of its kind in Scotland. To be able to show my work in the same institution that housed a retrospective of Maud Sulter’s work is extremely exciting for me as a young Scottish woman of colour.

I was first introduced to Sulter’s work during my undergraduate studies at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design University. Sulter, in most cases, is the first and only example that many artists of colour in Scotland are introduced to. As she continues to this day to be one of the only black Scottish artists to have been celebrated. I know many talented and prolific Scottish women of colour working in the arts today who have felt the need to leave Scotland to have their work recognised. This is sort of a sad fact of working in the arts in Scotland as a person of colour. For Fòcas Scotland and the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme to be facilitating this project is very exciting and timely.

Body of Land is a new Art new Audiences (nAnA) grantee, funded through the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme. The nAnA awards support innovative collaborations between the UK and East Africa across all creative media. Find our fellow awardees and explore some of their exciting work here.

Follow British Council East Africa on Instagram: @eastafricaarts 


Check out more of Sekai Machache’s work here.

Sekai Machache (b.1989) is based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work is a deep interrogation of the notion of self. Having been born in Zimbabwe and raised in Scotland, she has a particular interest in W.E.B Dubois’ notion of Double Consciousness, which expresses the psychological challenge of having African heritage whilst living in the West. Working in a multi-disciplinary practice, Sekai works with a wide range of media including but not exclusive to photography. Her photographic practice is mostly formulated through digital studio based compositions utilising body paint and muted lighting conditions, to create images that appear to emerge from darkness. Sekai is founding member of the Yon Afro Collective (YAC) in Scotland.

Follow Sekai on Instagram & Twitter