‘Cov­er­ing Sarah’ex­or­cises pain

Sen­zeni Marasela uses de­pic­tions of Sarah Baart­man to rid us of colo­nial­ism and racism

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Shar­lene Khan Shar­lene Khan is a vis­ual artist and se­nior lec­turer in art his­tory and vis­ual cul­ture at Rhodes Univer­sity. Read the full ver­sion of this piece at the­con­ver­sa­tion.com

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.

Photo: Sen­zeni Marasela/Afronova Gallery

Ex­posed: Euro­peans’ fas­ci­na­tion with ‘Hot­ten­tot Venus’ Sarah Baart­man is cap­tured in Sen­zeni’s works.

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