Senzeni Marasela and the weight of waiting

The artist’s first institutional solo exhibition seeks to correct her unsought erasure, over six years, in a red dress.

Cross-disciplinary artist Senzeni Marasela sits at her kitchen table. A storm is brewing outside her apartment in Soweto, Johannesburg, and rooibos tea brews in a porcelain pot on the table inside. Marasela is divulging generational secrets. She tells me how she, her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother learnt to make the perfect cup. 

Pour piping hot water, she recommends. Be generous with the leaves and, most importantly, wait. This last piece of advice permeates Marasela’s artistic career and personal life. And it spills over into the title of her latest show.

Waiting for Gebane at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town comprises photography, textiles, embroidery, installations and paintings made around a fictional alter ego, Theodorah Mthetyane. 

Undated: Theodorah Mthetyane, Senzeni Marasela’s performance art alter ego, was photographed wearing a yellow dress in different locations in Johannesburg. Mthetyane created the character to explore the experiences of rural-urban migration. 

The story has it that Theodorah’s husband, Gebane, left their rural home to seek work in Johannesburg. Theodorah is left waiting for a man who has not returned and might never do so. The weight of her waiting, the torture and torment of separation, the delirious longing and the treacherous search for him in Johannesburg find expression in different mediums across disciplines.

The work is part retrospective, spanning a chunk of Marasela’s career. Starting in 2003, Marasela fictionalised her mother’s 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 for and experiences of rural-urban migration. Theodorah has been the central character of Marasela’s work for close to two decades and her experience is its leitmotif.

Thread and charcoal

“My work, even right from the beginning,” Marasela says, “when I started working with Theodorah, has been about blurring this thing between the made-up and the real world.” The distinction between fiction and documentary is a shifting spectrum. In the artist’s world, the historical pours into her body of work and daily life. 

It’s a feat of curatorship that Waiting for Gebane presents a large body of work without separating it by materials used. Marasela embroiders minimal silhouettes of women on canvas with red thread, implying and interrogating who the viewer sees and what they presuppose about the spaces between the thread. The subjects of her embroidered works are styled and posed, stripped of embellishment, to put the point across succinctly. A few stitched lines can show deep despondence in one instance and quiet defiance in the next. 

Undated: Senzeni Marasela paints the red, earthen backgrounds of mine sites and in the foreground in charcoal draws women performing domestic tasks.

Marasela paints the red, earthen backgrounds of mine sites and draws women in the foreground in charcoal performing domestic tasks. With these choices, she deftly questions the value of labour and which type should be literally and figuratively foregrounded. Her photographs – in which she features as Theodorah at first in a yellow dress and then later in the red seshweshwe dress she wore exclusively for six years from 2013 to 2019 – transcend documenting a fictional character’s tribulations. 

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 solely by tribulation.

Jim and Theodorah come to Joburg

In historiography and cultural production – across literature, music, film and other mediums – Black men’s experiences have both framed and occupied the central role in South Africa’s narratives of rural-urban migration. From the 1949 Donald Swanson-directed African Jim (also known as Jim Comes to Joburg) to Hugh Masekela’s Stimela released in 1994, the move made by countless Black men from their rural homes to South Africa’s mining and industrial metropolises has overshadowed the experiences of women who affected and were affected by the country’s internal migration. 

Marasela realised early on in her professional artistic practice that her purpose lay in centralising women’s experiences of rural-urban movement. 

“It came after I saw African Jim. It was on TV, on SABC 2, and I remember being fascinated by this man who comes to Joburg and becomes disillusioned. And then how Joburg continues to be a place of dreams for a lot of people,” she says.

Undated: Waiting for Gebane presents a large body of work without separating it by the materials Senzeni Marasela used, including fabric, paint and charcoal.

Marasela and her father, who was watching the film with her, spoke throughout the movie. He shared his experiences of moving to Johannesburg in 1956, and anecdotes such as having his bicycle stolen and being beaten up in Kliptown.

But it was Marasela’s mother who laid the foundations for this moment being one on which Marasela would build her artistic career.

“There were times when we didn’t have electricity for months as children because of states of emergency. So, my mother used to tell us stories, hers and other people’s stories about how they eventually got to Joburg and why they live here and how we are connected to them. When I saw Jim Comes to Joburg, I remembered my mother’s stories. It came together. And I sat there and I thought, ‘Damn, here is my life’s work, to tell my mother’s story.’”

Six years in red

Marasela chose her physical body as the primary medium and site of “issue”. Theodorah, in a yellow dress, looking for her husband in different places in Johannesburg, became Marasela’s mask. Theodorah is a crafty device, brought to life.  

“As a means of deconstruction,” cultural theorist Efrat Tseëlon says, “the mask is a moment of reflexivity. It is the quintessential postmodern device for destabilising categories, questioning, defying overdetermined images, problematising certainties, subverting established meanings, exposing the seams of crafted facades and the rules of narrative, the practices of ritual, the mechanics of the act, the stylised element of the performance.”

Undated: For six years, Senzeni Marasela wore identical dresses tailored from red shweshwe material. In public, she was simultaneously herself and her alter ego Theodorah Mthetyane. All but one of the dresses are exhibited.

For six years, Marasela wore identical dresses tailored from red seshweshwe material. In public, she was simultaneously herself and Theodorah. This lengthy and consuming performance work has contributed to Marasela creating arguably one of the biggest bodies of contemporary work by an individual artist on the African continent. But it also cost her.

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. When silently navigating the world in the red dress, she was pitied, ignored and excluded by people furthest from her and those closest to her. The ramifications of her work sometimes affected her personally. “It became terribly lonely,” Marasela says. “It really shook me. At points it did [hurt].”

Out of sight

Marasela arrived at a lavish party in Cape Town’s affluent Camps Bay in 2018, wearing the red dress and carrying a plaid plastic bag. After a drink and some prawns, she was approached by the first guest to speak to her. “This white woman in a very beautiful dress,” she remembers, “smelling of money, comes to me and says, ‘Squeezer, our glasses are dirty. Can you please go get us glasses?’” Marasela had to explain to her that she, too, was an invited guest, and not the woman’s sister-in-law as her slang suggested.

“On the same evening, two other white women [spoke to me]. One asked me for a mop, one asked me where the bathroom was.” The other artists there who had “dressed the part” avoided and un-saw her, in plain sight.

Undated: In one body of work, artist Senzeni Marasela’s alter ego Theodorah Mthetyane is superimposed on popular international travel destinations with her fictional husband, Gebane, drawn in.

“With my cousins as well, when we’d go to weddings and big family functions, after some time I noticed that they didn’t want to take photographs with me. They would want me to hold the camera and then bundle together. So I bought a camera with a self-timer. I went looking for it because I thought, I’m not going to be part of family memory through these six years that I’m doing this performance. I’m going to be missing from it. Because nobody wants to take a photograph with me. So I bought a camera with a self-timer, that’s how I entered family memories as Theodorah, as a performer.”

When author and academic Njabulo Ndebele fictionalised four women in waiting in The Cry of Winnie Mandela, he knew that what was important was not only how he and the world looked at these women but how they looked back. “Their gaze captures the condition of life through time measured in states of waiting,” Ndebele writes. “That gaze is the solidity of being. It is a condition of beauty that balances doom with triumph. The look of coming and going.” 

Marasela makes art with and while waiting. Even our tea takes its time to release flavours and aromas. She looks intently, unflinchingly at the teapot, simultaneously orchestrating and subject to the process. Like the women in Ndebele’s narrative, Marasela’s work not only looks back with a similar gaze, it also forces the viewer to question how they look. 

Waiting for Gebane is on exhibition at the Zeitz Mocaa until 29 August 2021.

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