25 July – 12 August 2009
Performance and opening 25 July 2009 at 14:00
Senzeni Marasela’s latest exhibition at GALLERY AOP, entitled Witness, includes a new series of linocut prints, embroidered cloth and digital prints, as well as a performance during the opening of her show on 25 July 2009. Following on the exhibition Theodorah and other women at GALLERY AOP in 2005, she continues her investigation into the missing pieces in her personal history, both in terms of the familial and the social roles she plays in this history.
In her new body of work she uses some familiar woman characters whom she has introduced in previous work: Theodorah (her mother who suffers from bipolar schizophrenia and who has largely been absent (“literally and inexplicably”) from Marasela’s life; Sarah Baartman (the iconic ‘Hottentot Venus’); Barbie (the quintessential archetype of the white female doll); Marasela’s other ‘girls’ or children (the numerous black dolls she references in her work); and ‘Senzeni’ (in all her complex and multiple identities and selves).
Marasela draws from her own life history and from the thousands of photographs that document the performances that she has been staging since 2004. All these performances, in various local and international settings, have the artist as protagonist, accompanied by a professional photographer she hires as ‘witness’ to her performances. Her performances always involves dolls, bought at popular toy stores, often representing black skin colour, but with Caucasian features. The ambivalent identity represented in the dolls is sustained throughout her work. Unsuspecting audiences chancing upon her performances in public spaces capture the reaction to this ambivalence effectively. Interviewing Marasela for an Artthrob feature (September 2005) Kathryn Smith says: “Although deeply political, Marasela’s work bespeaks an ambivalent attitude towards past atrocities from which she was protected and guarded. Her sense of place as a Black woman, educated at a Catholic school in a White Afrikaans suburb gives her work an edge rarely encountered.” The sheltering from the political realities of the day effectively alienated Marasela from her race and from her culture, constituting, in her mind, the ‘sin’ for which she has to do penitence in and through her art. In her own words: “I believe that by revisiting the past, by giving myself a place in it, I’ll be able to forgive myself for my indifference.”
As protagonist in her performances, Marasela has previously dismembered her ‘children’, by, for example, taking them apart, removing the white stuffing from the bodies of the black dolls, and by trampling on them and burying them (Notably in such performances as Goodbye Miss Sally, Naturena, Johannesburg, July 2004 and Upalesa under my feet, Zoo Lake, Johannesburg, 2007). But she has also reassembled these dolls in various ways (in the performance, Miss Della, Zoo Lake, Johannesburg, November 2005) and has comforted them and cared for them (The comforter in NYC, 2008). She has shown them around New York, attempting to ‘introduce’ them to people in Central Park, and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the most visited museum in the city, to broaden their education and to share with the dolls her favourite artworks. She also attempted to introduce them to people on 5th Avenue, one of the most affluent streets in the world. While on an artist’s residency in Scotland earlier in 2009, she collected hundreds of Barbie dolls from the local community (only three black Barbies could be found). An interesting albeit inverted example of this form of a cross-cultural artifact can be found in the seminal exhibition, Evocations of the child at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1998 which included one white Barbie doll, dressed in traditional Ndebele attire, among all the other black fertility figures of the southern African region. During a performance that a ‘real-life’ cosmetically altered ‘Barbie’ from London attended, Marasela wrote messages on the floor to Barbie while on her hands ands knees, and dressed in sack cloth (Jonga, just look at me, Huntley, Scotland, 28 March 2009). She also visited the Sternesen Museum in Oslo, Norway in 2009 dressed in a fancy red dress with a number of pockets randomly sewn on the skirt. Products for facial make-up and various other items for ‘beautifying’ women kept falling out of these impractical pockets, but were left behind as they fell on the floor of the museum and on the various staircases (Oh my God you look like shit. Why have you left home this morning? 6 February 2009). In the performance at GALLERY AOP she continues the ‘education’ of her dolls (Attention, please, 25 July 2009).
Marasela’s performances are ‘documented’, or more likely, ‘represented’ in the other art work on exhibition: linocut prints of herself and of the dolls, and of the figures of Theodorah, her mother and of Sarah Baartman in the background; and digital prints of the performances in Central Park and on 5th Avenue in New York. Significant on this exhibition are the ‘drawings’ she makes with red thread on found cloth, normally used for lining tea trays, but which had already appeared in Marasela’s early work and on which she had screen printed images of the Cradock Four and of Stompie Seipei (Rory Bester called these ‘a memorialized archive’ in a small monograph on the artist, in the Fresh series of books published by the South African National Gallery in 2001). In these ‘thread drawings’ Marasela interfaces textile and contemporary art by bridging traditional techniques, such a pencil drawing and needle work, and contemporary expressions and manifestations of art to stitch a more subversive personal history for and of herself. She is a kindred spirit of the textile artist Andrea Dezsö whose work can be seen in the book, Contemporary Textiles: the fabric of fine art (Black Dog Publishing, 2008).
A sense of urgency characterizes Senzeni Marasela’s work: in her performances she effectively re-embodies and re-enacts her life-history, and in the other forms of her art, she effectively re-writes and re-dresses her life-history, with Theodorah as silent witness, compensating in an ironic way for her absence (Brenda Schmahmann writes poignantly about this absence in the book, Through the looking glass: Representations of self by South African women artists David Krut Publishing, 2004:22-24) in this mother-daughter relationship.
Born in 1977 in Boksburg, South Africa, Senzeni Marasela studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where she obtained a BA Fine Arts degree in 1998. She has exhibited in a number of exhibitions in South Africa and abroad and was artist in residence at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town in 2000. In 2002 she was the recipient of the Thami Mnyele Scholarship. Selected group exhibitions include Body and the Archive, Artists Space, New York, 2003; AIDS in Africa, Wesley Women’s College, Boston, 2002; Upstream Public Art Exhibition, Umeǻ, Sweden, 2000; Portrait Africa, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2000; Translation / Seduction / Displacement, White Box, New York, 2000; Margins in the Mainstream, Namibean National Gallery, Windhoek, 2000; Art region end of Africa (A.R.E.A.) 2000, Listasafn Reykjavikur Kjarvalsstadir, Reykjavik; Truth Veils, Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1999. Her work features in prominent local and international collections, including MoMA, New York.