Sarah, Theodorah and Senzeni in Johannesburg
11 – 25 June 2011
Opening Saturday 11 June at 14:00
Preview by appointment
Senzeni Marasela’s latest exhibition at GALLERY AOP comprises a new series of embroidered cloths and red ink drawings. Following on the success of her previous two exhibitions at GALLERY AOP (Theodorah and other women, 2005, and Witness, 2009), Marasela continues to visualize and mythologize her personal and social personae in her new work. The three women alluded to in the title of her new exhibition have become iconic figures in Marasela’s oeuvre: Sarah Baartman (the furtive and fugitive ‘Hottentot Venus’), Theodorah (Marasela’s mother who suffers from bipolar schizophrenia and who has largely been absent - “literally and inexplicably” - from Marasela’s life), and ‘Senzeni’ (the well-known South African artist in all her complex and multiple selves).
The unfolding drama depicted in the work portrays scenes in which a naked Sarah Baartman is clothed by Theodorah and Senzeni, in the presence of various onlookers. They seem to be participating in a ritual of covering up Baartman’s body, which, ironically, had been admired for most of her adult life for its naked sexuality. This public fascination purportedly resided in the anatomical abnormalities of her enlarged posterior (steatopygia) and her elongated labia (sometimes referred to as a vaginal ‘apron’ or ‘curtain’). She was subjected to, what is facilely called ‘the male gaze’. The figures surrounding her in Marasela’s new work, mainly female, seem to be re-inventing another persona for Baartman, re-presenting her in a different way, creating a new history for her.
Theodorah has been the subject of much of Marasela’s work over the past couple of years, portrayed as the distant and alien mother, the unfathomable woman, relentless in her abjection and insularity, in for example, Theodorah (2004), a series of photographs, and Theodorah and other women (2009), a series linocuts. In the current exhibition, Theodorah (whose figure is always portrayed from the back) adopts a new role: she is now the ubiquitous and faithful companion, akin to the secondary figure in Gustave Courbet’s famous painting The Meeting, or better known as Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet 1854. Theodorah has ‘accompanied’ Marasela to the big city before (as in the 2004 series of photographs mentioned above) and we again find her in Johannesburg, this time in the company of ‘Senzeni’ and Sarah.
Then there is Senzeni herself. She appears as the third figure in the triumvirate of women traversing the city. Senzeni has adopted the role of surrogate mother. On her back are strapped three black dolls that she often engages in elaborate ‘educational sessions’, teaching them what it is like to be a little black girl and what it is like to be a grown black woman, an education that was denied Senzeni when she was growing up because of her mother’s psychological state. Marasela has used this trope in many of her performances, notably the one in where as protagonist in the drama, she dismembered her ‘children’ by taking them apart and removing the white stuffing from the black dolls (Goodbye Miss Sally, Naturena, Johannesburg 2004).
In life, Sarah Baartman was no stranger to city life: she was wet nurse to Dutch farmers in Cape Town; she was put on display in London and Paris, where she was subject to various ‘scientific paintings’, a form of representation that reinforced the stereotype of exotic, primitive and sexual curiosity. In Johannesburg Sarah is confronted by another sense of the depiction of female beauty and allure: the street hairdressers lining pavements; the advertisements of female hairstyles affixed on lampposts in many of the embroidered cloths. Sarah (clothed by Theodorah and Senzeni) is confronted by big billboards on skyscrapers that depict herself, in the nude; she has been ‘written’ into the history of Johannesburg.
In a series of elongated drawings in red ink and wash, we see the figures of the three women facing the city from a distance. The city seems to float, disintegrate, dissolving as if they were part of a story, having played itself out, fading away. Marasela’s ‘clothing’ of Sarah, dressing her in new attire and re-presenting her in and through her work in a new form, transcends Sarah’s typecast in the popular imagination of the people. She has, in fact, enabled the re-writing and re-presentation of the history of Sarah Baartman.
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, where she is represented in the current exhibition, Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to now.