Coral Spencer at artSPACE
by Dineo Bopape
'Maid in Africa', Coral Spencer's exhibition, comprised relatively large, naturalistically painted oil paintings depicting black maids/domestic workers at work, nursing children and cleaning.
What enticed me to write about the show was the title, which I thought was provocative, possibly controversial: a white woman making paintings of black women of a particular class.
I assumed correctly that the show would deal with issues of otherness, class divides/connections or subjectivities. This was a show that presented the problematic areas of representation of people outside of one's socio-political group. Although the work was technically adept, it was conceptually flawed. The title proved more interesting than the show itself, which was supposedly a 'tribute' to the artist's maid who, I assume, is African, and raised/weaned her as though she were her own child.
Spencer's show is not so much a tribute as a romanticised look at African maids in Africa.
The maids depicted are inactive, passive subjects denied subjectivity. One does not know who Spencer's maid (the one to whom she pays tribute) is, amongst the 'group' of African maids depicted. The maids are denied individuality and are defined as a group.
One views them through a window as voyeur, an on-looker from a distance. The tribute does not applaud or pay homage to the people who are depicted as maids, but to their servitude. Their eyes are averted, they are looked at and defined by the viewers' gaze.
The paintings do not explore the complex relationships between the parties involved or political/social spaces that both occupy. They depict a consciousness or an ideology that reflects an 'othering'. The 'other' is here defined by class and station while the viewer can only make into 'other' what she or he sees. The 'other' in this case is the maid, whose role is romanticised, whose work is depicted beautifully and ideally. Indirectly, this also romanticises the politically flawed ideology of our colonial past.
The show seems to be more of a tribute to Spencer's memory than to maids in Africa: a reflection/reminder of South Africa's warped past and uncomfortable present. The 'tribute' does not pay homage enough to maids in Africa. The success of this show is that it presents an ideology that departs from that of a harmonious problem-free rainbow society. Transformation is harder than we all thought.
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Dineo Bopape is an artist who lives and works in Durban.