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The Waiting Game: Senzeni Marasela's first museum survey show

Isheshwe dress installation 2013- 2019

It is fitting in more ways than one that the word “waiting” should feature in the title of Senzeni Marasela’s survey exhibition at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art (Mocaa). Not only does it refer to a series of embroidered works by that name but Marasela’s art features the recurring motif of a woman – dubbed Theodorah – waiting. In the titular series she is depicted wrapped in a blanket standing adjacent to a chair. Indeed this South African artist has been waiting for this landmark moment in her career too. Not just a museum show – at one of our most highly recognised institutions – but to take centre stage. Largely, the high profile exhibitions featuring her work have been group shows staged outside South Africa.

The Afronova gallery that represents her has been tirelessly, driven by the late dealer Henri Vergon, promoting her art, largely at art fairs in Europe, but it has for some reason escaped recognition in her native country.

Could this be due to the fact that her visual vocabulary is understated and the central figure in her art is ubiquitous in our society? Theodorah as this figure is dubbed is a middle-aged woman based on the artist’s mother and enacted in photographic series by the artist herself, so perhaps it is not unexpected that their fates are intertwined.

The narrative Marasela has created about Theodore is a familiar one; after years of waiting in a rural setting for her husband (Gabane) to return from Joburg, Theodore goes in search of him. In this way, she presents the female corollary to the famous film Jim Comes to Jo’burg, which documents the experiences of the male migrant labour force in the 1940s. In the photographic series, Theodorah comes to Johannesburg, we only ever see Theodore from behind. As such she could be anyone and functions as a symbol.

We know this doek-wearing woman – she is on every street corner in every city in our country, navigating the barriers, absences, losses and struggles that many migrant workers on low wages and their families face. She is perhaps of a certain generation too – Marasela’s mother’s generation of women who were ‘left behind’ – not only in the sense that they remained at home, but in a broader sense that their role is society was lesser. They were/are trapped by a patriarchal society made more toxic via apartheid’s insidious racism.

Seen in different locations – often significant political landmarks in Joburg – Theodorah grapples with the history of the country, but more importantly with her place in it. She is a naïve figure. In Izithombe Zendawo Esizithandayo, images of Theodorah in a ‘waiting’ pose are superimposed onto images of desirable or well-known sights or travel destinations around the world. The figure of the absent Gabane is rendered beside her in a crude doodle representing a man. Theodorah is so trapped that her fantasies are manufactured.

This brings to mind Mary Sibande’s figure of Sophie, whose fantasies manifest through Victorian distortions made to a domestic worker’s outfit, but are also not reflected in the reality in which she is rooted. There are interesting parallels between Marasela’s photographic practice and that of Sibande – the use of a fictional character who relates to a family member (Marasela wears garments belonging to her mother) and a recurring outfit used to identify them. Marasela’s use of dress extends into a textile based practice, where a silhouette of Theodorah reappears through red lines embroidered onto white linen. You sort of imagine that Theodorah has made these herself – in an attempt to fill her time, while she waits. These works bring more universal feminist themes to mind; the way in which frustrated female ambition is channelled into labour intensive craft practices.

Installation image of the exhibition at Zeitz Moccaa, features work from Failing (2019) series and embroidery work from Waiting for Gebane series (2018)

As Koyo Kouoh, director of the Zeitz Mocaa, observed at the press preview, the waiting motif is one that not only relates to black South Africans who have waited for democracy, freedom from apartheid, and now economic liberation, but one that she believes resonates around the continent. The wait for old regimes or despots to be deposed and for better living conditions.

Given the universality of Marasela’s art, and indeed the way in which she turns our attention to the millions of black women waiting for their lives to improve, why has this artist waited so long – over 15 years – for her art to be properly acknowledged? The dress-up staged photographic and textile-based practices she embraced which complement each other so well, chime in not only with approaches embraced by the likes of Sibande but many other artists, such Athi-Patra Ruga, who began making art after Marasela. Did she influence their art making?

Perhaps her work is less sexy on a superficial level – in presenting the ordinary – a female figure of a middle-aged woman in ubiquitous outfits. Maybe we don’t want reality depicted without the frisson of sartorial excess.

Another striking feature of Marasela’s art that perhaps has been a barrier to wider enjoyment of it is the fact that the figure of Theodorah doesn’t transcend history, poverty, loss. She remains stuck, waiting for a man who is expected to set her free. This presents a kind of friction in Marasela’s art. She seems torn between making the story of this generation visible, while also expressing her frustration with them, their inaction, their dependence on men.

It may well have taken a curator from outside our country – Kouoh – to shine a light on Marasela’s practice.

The real weight of Marasela’s art perhaps lies in the accumulation of repeated acts over time – manifested through this long-standing durational performance of Theodorah, which dates from 2003. This kind of commitment is rare and perhaps undervalued in an art market pivoting on newness and novelty.

This exhibition is quietly satisfying, as it plots a chronological line through an interesting and varied (in terms of media) artistic trajectory. The concluding Ishweshewe dress installation of identical titular garments presented as if coming off a factory production line makes a bold visual statement. It points again to the ubiquity of the female figure Marasela aims to represent, the ever-present women who are the back-bone of our society, the mothers, the workers, who never seem to occupy the centre stage. The women who remain oppressed, who haven’t the resources or tools to set themselves free. - first published in The Sunday Times



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