A monthly feature on an artist currently in the public eye
Senzeni Marasela in her studio at the Bag Factory
Installation view: 'Democracy's Images', JAG
By Kathryn Smith (February, 2000)
Two words would describe Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela: headstrong and uncompromising. Impatient with labels and pigeon-holing, Marasela uses photography, photocopy transfers, silkscreening and handicraft to explore collective and personal memory. Her choice of 'raw' (unprocessed) fabrics like calico, set against the highly worked quality of lace have, for her, strong ties to colonialism. The labour-intensive process of handstitching is her way of inscribing herself into this past she wishes to explore, as well as attempting to elevate her chosen imagery into a realm of the cherished and respected. Although deeply political, Marasela's work bespeaks an ambivalent atitude 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. 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." ('Democracy's Images' catalogue; interview conducted by Rory Bester)
An immediate concern is altering the profile of black women artists in this country. Marasela is acutely aware of the absence of black women in decision-making positions in the realm of arts and culture, and while acknowledging the importance of artists like Noria Mabasa and Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, feels they have not 'developed' their language effectively or critically: black women artists need a contemporary language with which to speak about traditional content, and to move away from the association with 'craft'. Marasela cites Tracey Rose and Moshekwa Langa as examples of 'black' artists whose work avoids easy categorisation.
"Artists have an important role to play in telling stories about our turbulent history, especially when so many of the sincere gestures which make up this history have been cut down and mutilated. Hector Peterson is a good example. Up until 1976 young people hadn't really been seen at the forefront of political struggle, especially in images that so vividly depicted the slaughter of innocence. A lot of people don't really comprehend the significance of the events around 16th June 1976, especially the extent to which it marked the catalyst of events that were to bring down a regime. Stompie Seipei is another important example. He got caught up in a series of events that he didn't fully understand. The way Stompie lived and died was and still is a burden to so many people. History is making him elusive to memory. These are just two examples of children who have become the victims of political ideologies. It is these emasculated ideologies that I try to grapple with as a woman and as a black artist."
Although within a year of graduation, Marasela has already made an impact on the local and international art scene, and is currently showing as part of the South African contingent, curated by Kathleen Grundlingh, on the African photography show, 'Portrat Afrika', at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Marasela recently gave birth to a son, Ikwezi, and the experience of motherhood has, she says, encouraged a new sensitivity towards her own mother. The piece made for Berlin, His Mother, His Father part 1, explores emotional states and relationships through photographs sourced from family albums, and textual inscriptions. The presences of her child's father, and of Marasela's mother, are noted by their absences.
Marasela is also part of Translation/Seduction/Displacement, curated by Lauri Firstenberg and John Peffer opening at the White Box in New York on February 3 (see listings), and of 'Democracy's Images' currently on display at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Here, a keen sense of an 'absent presence' is also reflected in Stompie Seipei, Died 1989, Age 14 (1998). Commercial lace edging and beadwork around a silkscreened portrait of the child activist borders on the sentimental, but Marasela manages to contain this in the form of a touching and delicate 'tribute' installation.
Marasela has been a constant presence at the Wits Fine Art annual exhibitions since 1997. Last year she was a selected artist for the Market Theatre Galleries 'Unplugged' exhibition series, an exercise in soft curating initiated by Kendell Geers in 1996. Her inclusion in 'Truth Veils' (July 1998, Gertrude Posel Gallery, Wits), an exhibition which looked at art relevant to, as well as made in response to the TRC, saw her first experimentation with the sandblasted mirrors featured on 'Democracy's Images', which opened in Umea, Sweden, in September 1998. Marasela was also a featured artist on 'Lines of Sight' , the large scale survey of photography held at the South African National Gallery in the second half of 1999.
And before that:
For Marasela, a student work called Our Mother (1997) remains a seminal and indexical work in her artistic production thus far. The artist has always had a complex and often non-existent relationship with her schizophrenic mother, and when looking through family photographs, found images of her mother were conspicuously absent. Her family, she says, regards the practice of photography with suspicion, considering the 'captured' image powerful and susceptible to being used for "dubious" reasons. Any images she has of them were, according to her, "taken by force". Our Mother depicts a dress discarded by her mother, set against images of Marasela and her siblings. Pins cluster in the breast area of the dress, a gesture indicating the loss Marasela feels being "deprived of a mother figure" . "My mother was never a place of comfort", she says, "but always a stranger". The piece has been bought by the Goodman Gallery.
Marasela will be artist in residence at the South African National Gallery later this year.
References: Artist fails to see the importance
Senzeni Marasela can be contacted on 0823 698 7530 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.