‘Covering Sarah’exorcises pain
Senzeni Marasela uses depictions of Sarah Baartman to rid us of colonialism and racism
Sarah Baartman, called the “Hottentot Venus”, was a Khoikhoi woman paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris two centuries ago, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks. She was exhibited in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros, and used by Europeans to exemplify their superiority.
South African artist Senzeni Marasela’s Covering the Hottentot Venus draws on the 19th-century French print La Belle Hottentot, which shows the pseudoscientific scrutiny that Baartman was subjected to. In Marasela’s red watercolour, Baartman stands on a podium as four Europeans try to glance at the mythologised “Hottentot apron” and indulge their fascination in her steatopygia (large buttocks).
The watercolour seems to bleed into the characters and the scene as if in warning, in shame, in humiliation. Baartman doesn’t remain on the podium forever, for this is a stage in a spiritual and creative story called Covering Sarah by Marasela.
The first time I viewed this work, I cried. Stitched in red embroidery, the artist depicts herself, and her long-running character Theodorah, covering Baartman in a huge wrap.
Theodorah is based on Marasela’s own mother. In her previous photographic series Theodorah Comes to Johannesburg (2004-2008), Marasela stages herself as her mother and attempts to navigate this cityscape. Marasela’s mother moved from the rural Eastern Cape to Johannesburg after marriage. Apartheid Johannesburg was a trauma she could never deal with.
She lived in constant fear of arrest, and witnessed someone being beaten to death. These circumstances, combined with her own schizophrenia, made Johannesburg an aggression she eventually couldn’t confront.
In the Theodorah series, Marasela, on behalf of her mother, visits historical sites in the Johannesburg area. They include the Hector Pieterson memorial, the Apartheid Museum and everyday places such as an abandoned shop in Kliptown and the bustling migrant trading quarters in Diagonal Street and Jeppestown.
We never see Theodorah/ Marasela’s face. We only follow her gaze as she becomes disillusioned with Johannesburg and the modernist capitalist dream, for she feels alone against the tide of masses, and the toll these forces take.
Marasela feels the need to validate her mother’s trauma beyond her illness, as an external condition imposed on black South Africans. This is a kind of personal memorial that acknowledges apartheid as not just a physical brutalisation but also as a continued mental violation.
Marasela’s work creates a tension between the narrations of public wounding and her private one. One can only imagine the pain felt by Marasela as a child, visualising these horrific incidents and her mother’s desolation. In negotiating this tension, between fact and fiction, oral narratives and official memorial projects, imagination and fantasy, she reclaims her own and her mother’s subjective experiences as part of South Africa’s untold histories.
Subjective storytelling compels the audience to acknowledge its bias, its invention, its fiction, the “biomythographical” element. Feminist scholar Bell Hooks draws on Audre Lorde’s idea of “biomythography” as a kind of remembering that is “a general outline of an incident”, the details different for each of us. It is “re-membering” as a piecing together, a textured retelling meant to capture spirit rather than accurate detail.
In Covering Sarah (2005-2011), Marasela and Theodorah publicly clothe Baartman. There are sewn and linocut versions of this work. In some alternatives, Baartman is dressed in ethnic adornments, standing as a powerful cultural figure.
Marasela leads Baartman, together with her mother, through present-day Johannesburg in a follow-up series called Sarah, Theodorah and Senzeni in Johannesburg (2011).
Looking at various women’s labour, they find strength and safety in each other’s presence. Marasela identifies with these women as part of a continuum of racial-genderedclass oppression. Her red, menstrual-like, fertile embroidery and ink lines trace a history of limitations, of troubled/troubling women and overcoming narratives.
Even though contemporary artwork is often associated with the “I” of the individual creator, Marasela refuses this individuation to invoke historical legacy and identify with the social struggles of women who came before. The multiple I in this narrative offer these black women’s bodies some kind of protection in South African public space, where they continue to be vulnerable.
And it’s through a support network of troubling women that our stories, struggles and resistances are not lost in time as we reconcile ourselves to our histories and our present.
Exposed: Europeans’ fascination with ‘Hottentot Venus’ Sarah Baartman is captured in Senzeni’s works.