Fourth-year Wits fine arts student uses Afro-futurism to engage issues of migration and feelings of displacement in an award-winning mixed media installation 

Rumbo Mercy was named this year’s winner of the Wits Young Artist Awards, for her work titled, platform Omega: awaiting the twilight train — which uses mixed media in an afro-futuristic installation of a space traveler, looking to belong.   

In the exhibition, the space traveler, named Space Kid is suspended in the air, with a green suit and an astronaut’s helmet, floating about with fish moving all around her. It looks like she is floating in a fishbowl. There is a pair of shackles beneath her feet and in front of her, there is an old suitcase with her belongings.  

Part of Rumbo Mercy’s art installation is this old briefcase carrying Space Kid’s belongings. Photo: Moronga Masebe.

The show also used video and narration to tell the story of Space Kid waiting at a train station, on her way to a planet of outcasts, leaving behind Alcyone, a star on which she never really felt at home. 

In the exhibition the narrator explains that Space Kid was born with the inability to be held down by gravity, in a world where belonging is legitimised by being weighted. However, Space Kid had to wear metallic chains around her ankles that added humiliation to the pain of not being weighted – like others.  

On why it looks like she is floating in a fishbowl, Mercy said that because fish live in water, they are probably unaware of the water, like we are not aware of the air we breathe. But if we were to flip that around, fish will start grasping for air which will make them aware of their surroundings. 

The work was inspired by Mercy’s background of being a daughter of Malawian parents, who came to South Africa, for greener pastures, before she was born. “I have always felt disconnected from South African cultures because I don’t know them, but also, I didn’t know my Malawian side because we didn’t live there”, she said.  

She refers to this as being in a state of “liminality,” which is a psychology term that describes the feeling of being in between two states but not quite belonging to either. 

Mercy’s work grapples with ideas and feelings of displacement, migration and belonging in an imaginative way, without the usual political connotations that sometimes muddle the conversation.  

However, Mercy recognises that her choice of topics is not easy to tell in ways that does not trigger xenophobic sentiments; and she is using her art, to express her experiences in a way that lends itself to more objective interpretations. 

Reshma Chhiba, the curator of the exhibition at The Point of Order – an art gallery that is part of the Wits fine art department told Wits Vuvuzela that Mercy’s art installation was picked from a list of 10 finalists at a ceremony held at the gallery. 

“It did come down to Rumbo in a very clear manner,” she said, while explaining that her work plays on a “African futurism that allows for a fictionalization and imagination,” which was exciting to see.    

She said that this year, they had 113 students who submitted their work, and the selector, Same Mdluli, who is the curator and manager of the Standard Bank Gallery, shortlisted the ten finalists, and 3 independent adjudicators named Mercy’s installation as this year’s winner on July 20, 2023.   

Chhiba said that the purpose of the Wits Young Artist Awards is to “recognise artistic excellence within the undergrad cohort…open [only] to third and fourth-year undergraduates of the fine art programme.” 

Space Kid’s story is being exhibited online, via the WYAA website. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Rumbo Mercy, winner of the Wits Young Artist Awards 2023, looking up at her Space Kid sculpture. Photo: Morongoa Masebe