Mara Verna at the Bag Factory
by Kathryn Smith
To sum up the activities of Canadian performance artist Mara Verna in one article is tricky. The girl has been around the Johannesburg city block more than a few times during her Bag Factory residency in Johannesburg, throwing herself with calculated abandon into all aspects of Johannesburg's fraught (or is that vrot?) cultural landscape - including the Joubert Park Project, the Red Bull Creativity Contest and numerous intersections near you.
Her end-of-residency exhibition at the Bag Factory on October 17 brought her site-specific performances, which focus on conflating "the complex social relations in and between cultural and geographical boundaries" into focus with awesome large-scale, pixellated digital prints from video screen grabs and video documentation itself - edited scenarios of her work "in the field" as it were.
Along with her series of domestic characters in 'Car Folk', where she cleans signage, traffic lights and pavements in Please hoot if you think she works harder than you, gives out money with cake on her face in Let them eat cake, and parades, crowned with and carrying toy weapons in Your home is your castle, Verna scored coups with Arts and Crafts in Joubert Park with performer Toni Morkel and In the Service of Her Hands and Feet.
Arts and Crafts had Morkel and Verna sitting at the King George Street entrance to the park at a street hawker's stand, flanked by a busy taxi rank and numerous other hawkers and in front of a sign stating "No Guns, No Alcohol". Verna was dressed in a stretch-knit dress and crocheted hat, unravelling woollen garments and trying to sell the resulting piles of wool. This was "craft". Next to her sat Toni Morkel, dressed like your typical "art auntie" who flogs tasteful compositions at Sunday art-in-the-park markets. This character, however, was trying to sell a framed, photocopied archival image of vintage Joubert Park for R15 000. Passers-by who balked at the price were met with gracious - but slightly indignant - attemps to explain that this was, after all, Art - a "genuine replica" - and that the price was perfectly justified.
In addition to drawing critical attention to how "high art" functions in an African city, and pressing all the buttons the Joubert Park Project is hoping to engage with, what Morkel and Verna's presence also foregrounded was a clever take on "community project politics". Often, social upliftment projects are not unlike well-meaning exercises of colonisation - people who have access to skills and resources move into less-developed areas and show 'em the ropes, so to speak. In this case, two white ladies from the suburbs, striving to improve their craft (or art), search for an alternative platform to showcase and sell their work. In the process, however, they seem to miss all the crucial innuendos - trying to engage with exclusively black pedestrians and educate them in the ways of creative process and journeys of self when the context in which they both pontificate and show genuine interest is so conflicting. Verna, wearing prosthetic teeth, can barely suppress a laugh when Morkel, sketching "en plein air", tries to explain balance in compositional structure and the importance of meditation. Utterly brilliant.
In a performance documented on video for the JPP, she provided meditation of a different sort for (mostly) women passing through the park by offering free manicures and pedicures. The filming "caresses" these overworked and stressed hands and feet as does Verna herself, as she touches, massages and pampers. It is a powerful project, intimate and poignant as you realise this one-on-one time between strangers, some of whom returned on other days just to visit, is so rare.
Verna states in the small catalogue that accompanied her exhibition: "Herein lies the potential of the live art document. Not wanting simply to act as stand-in spectacle to the lived experience, its agency attempts to stabilise a point of entrance to bridge a more compressed dialogue. And in the process, it offers a means to question implicit notions of representation in the struggle to challenge where art is located and for who it is intended." Yes, indeed.