Interdisciplinary artist Senzeni Marasela sits at her kitchen table. A storm is brewing outside her apartment in Soweto, Johannesburg, and rooibos tea is brewing in a porcelain pot on the table inside. Marasela discloses generational secrets. She tells me how she, her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother learned to make the perfect cup.
Pour in boiling water, she recommends. Be generous with the leaves and, above all, wait. This last tip permeates Marasela’s artistic career and personal life. And that spills over into the title of his latest show.
While waiting for Gebane at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town features photographs, textiles, embroidery, installations and paintings made around a fictional alter ego, Theodorah Mthetyane.
The story goes that Theodorah’s husband, Gebane, left his rural home to look for work in Johannesburg. Theodora is waiting for a man who has not returned and may never do. The weight of his expectation, the torture and torment of separation, the delusional desire and treacherous search for him in Johannesburg find expression in different mediums across the disciplines.
The work is partly retrospective, covering part of Marasela’s career. Starting in 2003, Marasela fictionalized her mother and grandmother’s experiences of moving to Johannesburg by creating a character with her mother’s name. The real and fictional Theodorahs had similar but not identical reasons and experiences of rural-urban migration. Theodorah has been the central figure in Marasela’s work for almost two decades and her experience is its leitmotif.
Thread and charcoal
âMy job, even from the start,â says Marasela, âwhen I started working with Theodorah, was to blur this thing between the invented world and the real world. The distinction between fiction and documentary is a changing spectrum. In the artist’s universe, history spills over into his work and into his daily life.
It is a feat of curatorship that While waiting for Gebane presents an important work without separating it by the materials used. Marasela embroiders minimal silhouettes of women on canvas with red thread, involving and questioning what the viewer sees and what he presupposes about the spaces between the threads. The subjects of his embroidered works are stylized and posed, devoid of embellishment, to convey the message succinctly. A few stitched lines can show deep discouragement in one case and silent challenge in the next.
Marasela paints the red earth backgrounds of mining sites and draws charcoal women in the foreground doing domestic chores. With these choices, she cleverly questions the value of work and the type that should be brought to the fore, both literally and figuratively. Her photographs – in which she portrays Theodorah first in a yellow dress and then later in the red Seshweshwe dress that she wore exclusively for six years from 2013 to 2019 – transcend the documentation of the tribulations of a fictional character.
She makes room for imagination and play, allowing Theodorah to place herself in idyllic situations, whether at global tourist attractions next to her beloved Gebane or alongside country singer Dolly Parton. Life in Theodorah’s world is not defined by tribulation alone.
Jim and Theodorah come to Joburg
In historiography and cultural production – through literature, music, film and other mediums – the experiences of black men have both framed and played a central role in South African narratives of rural migration. -urban. From 1949, directed by Donald Swanson African Jim (also known as Jim comes to Johannesburg) to Hugh Masekela Stimela published in 1994, the displacement of countless black men from their rural homes to the mining and industrial metropolises of South Africa has eclipsed the experiences of women who have been affected and have been affected by the country’s internal migration.
Marasela realized very early in her professional artistic practice that her goal was to centralize women’s experiences in rural-urban movement.
“It came after seeing African Jim. It was on TV, on SABC 2, and I remember being fascinated by this man who comes to Joburg and is disillusioned. And then how Johannesburg continues to be a dream place for many people, âshe says.
Marasela and her father, who watched the film with her, talked throughout the film. He shared his experiences of moving to Johannesburg in 1956 and anecdotes such as the theft of his bicycle and the beating in Kliptown.
But it was Marasela’s mother who laid the groundwork for this moment on which Marasela would build her artistic career.
âThere were times when we didn’t have electricity for months when we were kids because of the state of emergency. So my mother would tell us stories, hers and other people’s about how they finally got to Joburg and why they live here and how we relate to them. When I saw Jim comes to Johannesburg, I remembered my mother’s stories. It came together. And I sat there and I thought, ‘Shit, this is my life’s job, telling my mom’s story.’ “
Six years in red
Marasela chose her physical body as the primary medium and site of “question”. Theodorah, in a yellow dress, searching for her husband in different places in Johannesburg, became the mask of Marasela. Theodorah is a nifty device, which comes to life.
âAs a means of deconstruction,â says cultural theorist Efrat TseÃ«lon, âthe mask is a moment of reflexivity. It is the postmodern device par excellence for destabilizing categories, questioning, challenging overdetermined images, problematizing certainties, subverting established meanings, exposing the seams of ornate facades and the rules of storytelling, ritual practices, the mechanics of act, the stylized element of the performance. “
For six years, Marasela wore identical dresses made of red seshweshwe fabric. In public, she was both herself and Theodorah. This long and tedious performance work has contributed to Marasela creating arguably one of the largest sets of contemporary works by an individual artist on the African continent. But it also cost him.
Abroad, in South Africa, and with her family and friends, the performance is interpreted as visual art but also exists as a narrative in Marasela’s life. As she silently sailed the world in a red dress, she was pitied, ignored, and excluded by those furthest from her and those closest to her. The ramifications of her work have affected her personally at times. âIt has become terribly lonely,â says Marasela. âIt really shook me. At times he did [hurt]. “
Out of sight
Marasela arrived at a lavish party in the wealthy Cape Town of Camps Bay in 2018, wearing the red dress and carrying a checkered plastic bag. After a drink and some shrimp, she was approached by the first guest to talk to her. âThis white woman in a very nice dress,â she recalls, âsmelling the money, comes to me and says, ‘Squeezer, our glasses are dirty. Can you please go get us some glasses? Marasela had to explain to him that she too was a guest, and not the woman’s sister-in-law as her slang suggested.
âThat same evening, two other white women [spoke to me]. One asked me for a mop, the other asked me where the bathroom was. The other artists there who had “dressed the part” avoided her and didn’t see her in plain sight.
âWith my cousins ââtoo, when we went to weddings and big family functions, after a while I noticed that they didn’t want to take pictures with me. They would like me to hold the camera and then regroup. So I bought a camera with a self-timer. I went to get him because I thought I wouldn’t be part of family memory for the six years that I’ve been doing this performance. I’ll run out of it. Because no one wants to take a picture with me. So I bought a camera with a self-timer, that’s how I came into family memories as Theodorah, as a performer.
When author and scholar Njabulo Ndebele made four fictional women waiting in The cry of Winnie Mandela, he knew that what was important was not just how he and the world looked at these women, but how they looked back. “Their gaze grasps the condition of life through time measured in states of expectation,” writes Ndebele. âThis look is the solidity of being. It is a condition of beauty that balances unhappiness with triumph. The look to come and go.
Marasela makes art with and while waiting. Even our tea takes its time to release flavors and aromas. She looks intently, without flinching, at the teapot, both orchestrating and subject to the process. Like the women in Ndebele’s tale, Marasela’s work not only looks back with a similar gaze, it also forces the viewer to wonder what they look like.
While waiting for Gebane is on display at Zeitz Mocaa until August 29, 2021.