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Artist Kim Lieberman uses cash to make a connection in her latest series

The 'Pale Blue Dot' series questions the real value of money and how it is worth much more than we realise

19 July 2020 - 00:02 By and andrea nagel
Kim Lieberman in her studio.
Kim Lieberman in her studio.
Image: Alon Skuy

For an object that we handle daily, money isn't really scrutinised by most people. We know former president Nelson Mandela takes pride of place as the main motif on the front of each of our banknotes and that the head of each of the Big Five African animals graces the back. Without thinking about it, we're aware which colour pertains to which denomination and that a ghostly iteration of the former president faces his crosshatched image on each note when you hold the paper up to the light.

"But there's so much more," says artist Kim Lieberman excitedly, taking a note and rolling it up in her hand, first like a thick straw, and then in a circular tube shape, showing me how, as a three-dimensional object, all four sides of the notes match perfectly.

The complexity is absurd really — the fine engraving crisscrossing Mandela's face, the minute curlicues concealed within the concentric kaleidoscope of pale triangles and coloured ripples. The fading patterns behind Mandela's head that look like they come off a MaXhosa knit. So many tricks to ensure the note is legal tender that any attempt at a perfect counterfeiting seems too difficult to succeed.

When the new banknotes are tilted, the security thread changes to a different colour, unique to each denomination — green to magenta on the R10, for example, blue to red on the R100. When you hold the note almost horizontally to your eyes a shadow image of its numeral appears in the band below the image of the former president — it disappears when it's held to face you.

On the back of the note, the animal motifs and the unique numbering are in raised print and two parts of the image of the note's animal appear in perfect print registration on the front and back of the note at the same time when the note is held up to the light. Rock art figures flit across the surface, herding cattle and throwing spears.

As a medium of exchange, we're happy to swap it for other currencies as if it's just a piece of paper with an arbitrary value but, says Lieberman, "the actual iconography of currency reflects a range of gendered, raced and historically-forged local peculiarities". It's all quite beautiful and detailed and definitive of us, while at the same time being impersonal and completely fungible.

"When I travel I love 'swapping out' my culture — my experience as a South African — for a totally different one," says Lieberman, sitting at a table in her studio. On it is a beautiful wooden box, filled like a library card-filing drawer with international notes categorised and tagged by country. "It helps me get an understanding that mine is just one way of being, one language, one set of cultural practices we immerse ourselves in."

Scattered around her on the table are long rectangular sheets of textured paper, with fragments of banknotes connected by silk thread — her lockdown series of Pale Blue Dot artworks. There are pieces of Australian dollar, Argentine peso, Botswana pula, Brazilian real, Chinese renminbi, Egyptian pound ... currencies from 34 countries creating a representation of the "human weave", as she puts it, an interconnection of movement — travel information and trade.

A detail of 'Political Leaders' from Kim Lieberman's new 'Pale Blue Dot' series.
A detail of 'Political Leaders' from Kim Lieberman's new 'Pale Blue Dot' series.
Image: Supplied

"Money ... is hand-to-hand passing, weaving its way from person to person, picking up their dirt and carrying that residue with it," says Lieberman. "The coronavirus has shown us that we are inextricably woven together, we all affect each other. We weren't prepared to stop and carve ourselves away from the economic edifice that we know and understand."

For Lieberman, money is an association with geography, but it's so much more.

"Money is loaded," she says. "It takes on a different form of reference when the actual currency of different countries are placed in a small space — into an artwork. Generally, different monies inhabit different geographical places — with borders, with language, with their own brand of politics and political icons, with race issues, with actual daily human interaction. It gets passed around, a language that needs no translation."

All of these issues were already on her mind when Lieberman went into lockdown with her family.

"While isolated from the world I started reading a book I'd known about for years, Pale Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan," she says. "While the economy, travel, the school system were all stopped in their tracks, I imagined, with the help of Sagan, Earth as it was for entire epochs — as seen from space, a round, blue planet suspended in the cosmos. I had my box of currency with me and I was looking at money as the illustration that people made to represent their experience on Earth — what they celebrate and honour, what they aspire to achieve, what they want to communicate, what their culture considers as 'currency'." All of this through this precious paper that's become such a force in our lives — defining our characters as mean or generous. Giving us freedom or making us slaves. Tearing families apart or bringing them together. Making us important or irrelevant.

"Money is a parallel to the most precious, emotional parts of our lives. The concept of trading this paper reiterates what we feel is central to each culture, what's been agreed on by most nations, each with a diverse array of political, social and emotive contexts," says Lieberman. "The notes are handled by different people, touching, passing, exchanging, trading for things that are precious to them, holding these grimy notes. Each has a story ... and these notes somehow made their way to me."

The 'Pale Blue Dot' series consists of six works - each focusing on a different aspect of lockdown.
The 'Pale Blue Dot' series consists of six works - each focusing on a different aspect of lockdown.
Image: Supplied

The series consists of six works, and each focuses on a different aspect of lockdown. "I found themes on the various currencies," says Lieberman. "I use what's on the notes to express my own agenda, to get a concept I'm concerned about into focus. There's so much pre-existing content on money, so much pigment and colour."

The first was Political Leaders. It's an enormous honour to be put on money but money also acknowledges workers, people in the fields, hunters and gatherers.

"I started to wonder, 'Who lands up on money?'"

It's easy enough for us to understand why Mandela is on our rand, it's evident to anyone who knows our story. The same with Ghandi. But why is Mao still on the Chinese renminbi? What's on some notes is now so politically problematic. The US has only white, male politicians on its notes. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are two, but not Donald Trump.

'Architecture' from Kim Lieberman's 'Pale Blue Dot' series.
'Architecture' from Kim Lieberman's 'Pale Blue Dot' series.
Image: Supplied

"In one of the rock-like shapes I drew [President Cyril] Ramaphosa after his first lockdown speech when most of us felt we had a decisive leader who we could respect, admire and trust, when I felt that perhaps he should be on our money."

The next was Education and The People. "I was surprised by what I found on a Rwandan note: a depiction of one of the core experiences children and their parents have today — kids in front of tablets. Israeli notes have books. The Zambian note has an image of a mother standing over her child doing homework. It spoke to me of my own experience of education in lockdown — my kids in front of iPads learning in my own space, so I drew my daughter as a reflection of this."

There are all forms of architecture on money, from small grass huts to elaborate colonnade buildings. "In the Architecture work I drew the Constitutional Court because I'm interested in fairness, what's fair? By the time that I got to this work in the series the conversation had changed to questions of what is fair to the people? The economy had shut down, there are all these rules that are illogical. How do we protect people and maintain their rights? It's a quagmire."

Also in the series is Rocks and Water and Plants and Animals, which Lieberman says she created to signify the world taking a breather. "We're usually so concentrated on the negative aspects of money, its power to corrupt, to make dirty. But culture and nature are linked and the decisions made in global trade affect the environment."

The last in the series is Travel, the medium of our cross-pollination across the planet. "For the first time in history on this scale, all of it suddenly halted."

Money is an interesting medium with which to create art. As Lieberman says, money is anchored in a mutual arbitrary agreement — or even, a consensual hallucination. "We don't agree on much, and yet we all agree on this," she says.

Looking at Lieberman's work, Mark Auslander, director of the Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University says: "Collectively, under admittedly unequal conditions of staggering inequality, we produce the shared 'inter-subjective' reality of monetary value and of the global financial system, to whose fickle whims we are, in turn, all subject."

But the connection between art and money goes further. Since money is fungible, it stands in sharp contrast with the idea of distinction. One pile of money looks just like the next and unless you put it to use, is essentially just coloured paper. Turning money into art gives it the distinction it's lacking. It enhances its value, makes it personal and even beautiful. To paraphrase Carrie Bradshaw's line from Sex and the City: "I like my money where I can see it — hanging on my living room wall."


"It's interesting to me which nationalities put women on their notes," says artist Kim Lieberman. "The most obvious is the Queen on the English pound note." But of more 15 countries that feature their female greats on banknotes, not one is African.

In Nigeria, there are female figures on the back of the 10 and 20 naira notes, and a woman among men on the front of 50 naira notes. But these are images of women without prominence or recognition.

SWEDEN: Tops the list when it comes to putting women on their notes, with opera singer Jenny Lind on the 50 krona note and Selma Lagerlöf, the first female writer to win the Nobel prize for literature, on the 20 krona. A recent line of banknotes features author Astrid Lindgren (20 krona), soprano Birgit Nilsson (500 krona) and Greta Garbo (100 krona).

Jenny Lind on the 50 krona note.
Jenny Lind on the 50 krona note.
Image: Supplied

AUSTRALIA: Has a woman on the front or back of every note. The social reformer and writer Dame Mary Gilmore is on the back of the $10; 19th-century businesswoman Mary Reibey is on the front of the $20; social worker and the first female member of an Australian parliament Edith Cowan is on the back of the $50, and soprano Dame Nellie Melba is on the front of the $100 note.

NEW ZEALAND: Suffragette Kate Sheppard helped her nation become the first country in the world to have universal voting rights for both men and women in 1893. She's on the $10 bill.

TURKEY: Turn-of-the-century novelist and women's rights activist Fatma Aliye Topuz is on the 50 lira note.

ISRAEL: Poet Rachel Bluwstein (Rachel the Poetess) is on the 20 new shekel and author and poet Leah Goldberg is on the 100 new shekel.

MEXICO: A self-portrait of artist Frida Kahlo is on the 500 peso note (her husband Diego Rivera is on the other side). 17th-century scholar and writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is on the 200 peso note.

Frida Kahlo on the 500 peso note.
Frida Kahlo on the 500 peso note.
Image: Supplied

THE PHILIPPINES: Corazon Aquino, the first female president of the Philippines and in Asia adorns the 500 peso note (alongside her husband, politician Benigno Aquino). Early 20th-century suffragette Josefa Llanes Escoda is on the 1,000 peso note.

SOUTH KOREA: The 50,000 won bill features the 16th-century artist, writer and poet Shin Saimdang.

UKRAINE: The 200 hryvnia shows Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka, writer, poet and women's rights activist.

CANADA: Viola Desmond was put on a note 72 years after she went to jail for sitting in the wrong section of a movie theatre to celebrate her efforts in fighting for civil rights.

ARGENTINA: Former first lady Eva "Evita" Perón is on the 100 peso bill. The 20 peso note depicts 19th-century political activist Manuela Rosas with her father, politician Juan Manuel de Rosas.

Eva "Evita" Perón on the 100 peso bill.
Eva "Evita" Perón on the 100 peso bill.
Image: Supplied

NORWAY: Kirsten Flagstad, Wagnerian soprano of the mid-20th century, is on the 100 krone note. Sigrid Undset, novelist who received a Noble prizein literature, is on the 500 krone note.

CHILE: Nobel prize recipient in literature, poet, and educator Gabriela Mistral is featured on the 5,000 peso note.

ICELAND: Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir: daughter of priest Jon Arason, wife of two bishops, is the face of the 5,000 krona note.

JAPAN: Writer and poet during the late 1800s Ichyo Higuchi graces the 5,000 yen note.

SWITZERLAND: Sophie Taeuber-Arp, a foremost figure of the rebellious Dada art movement, is on the 50 franc note.

• Source: venturesafrica.com