Hyperinflation Zimbabwe, Aferiperfoma Biennale of African Performance, Harare, Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe only won its independence in 1980, under the revolutionary leadership of Robert Mugabe. Hyperinflation began in the 1990s due to several factors, including land redistribution, economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the IMF, and the government’s excessive printing of money. The Mugabe government was spending a lot on the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also self-dealing. Transparency International ranks Zimbabwe's government 157th of 177 in terms of institutionalized corruption. The peak month of hyperinflation occurred in mid-November 2008 with a rate estimated at 79,600,000,000% per month. This resulted in US$1 becoming equivalent to the staggering sum of Z$2,621,984,228,675,650,147,435,579,309,984,228. To highlight the absurdity of this number, to describe the amount one would have to say, "2 decillion, 621 nonillion, 984 octillion, 228 septillion, 675 sextillion, 650 quintillion, 147 quadrillion, 435 trillion, 579 billion, 309 million, 984 thousand, 228 hundred Zimbabwe dollars." Soon after Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency and at the time of my performance people were using a combination of US dollars, South African Rand and a couple of other African currencies deemed to hold their value relatively well.
The billion and trillion Zimbabwean dollar bills have become international collector’s items, but when I purchased some on e-Bay I found that their prices were impossibly low compared to their face value, the reverse dynamic of the Work of Art added-value function. By transforming the billion and trillion dollar bills into Art I planned to increase their value, if not to the originally printed face value, then to something much greater than the bills’ price on e-Bay.
I was performing in Zimbabwe as part of Aferiperforma, the first African Biennale of Performance, held in the capital Harare. Mugabe and his government had grown sufficiently paranoid of free expression that they denied visas to the majority of the African artists invited to the Biennale, including its curator, Jelili Atiku, leaving the ‘African’ performance festival with mostly non-African artists. My performance was originally scheduled to be done at a large and very busy bus station in downtown Harare. When the censors got wind of my plans to intervene the hyperinflated Zimbabwean currency they accused me of ‘insulting the patrimony’ and moved my performance to the Goethe Institute, a much more private locale at which the audience consisted only of other artists from the festival, thereby emasculating the performative action.