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‘Covering Sarah’ exorcises pain

Sarah Baartman was a South African Khoikhoi woman who was paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris two centuries ago, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks. Baartman was exhibited in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros, nicknamed “Hottentot Venus” and used by Europeans to exemplify their “European white superiority”.

South African visual artist Senzeni Marasela‘s “Covering the Hottentot Venus” depicts the famous 19th century French print “La Belle Hottentot”, which shows the pseudo-scientific scrutiny that Baartman was subjected to in the last months of her life which ended in 1816. 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 scenes as if in warning, in shame, in humiliation. Baartman doesn’t remain on the podium forever though, but this is the stage of a much more beautiful spiritual and creative story. This narrative is called “Covering Sarah” by Marasela.

My relationship with “Covering Sarah”
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 mum. In her previous photographic series “Theodorah Comes to Johannesburg” (2004-2008), Marasela stages herself as her mum and attempts to navigate this modern day cityscape. Marasela’s mum moved from the rural Eastern Cape region to Johannesburg after marriage. Apartheid Johannesburg was a trauma that she could never deal with.

Marasela’s mum lived in constant fear of arrests which she saw in the city, and once witnessed someone being beaten to death in the 1960s. These external circumstances combined with her own schizophrenia, made Johannesburg an aggression she eventually couldn’t confront, and has never been to since the 1980s.

In the “Theodorah” series, Marasela, on behalf of her mother, visits historical sites in the greater Johannesburg/Soweto area. They include the Hector Pieterson memorial and the Apartheid Museum, as well as the once derelict skeletal structure of the Turbine Hall in downtown Johannesburg. She also visits everyday nondescript places such as an abandoned rundown shop in Kliptown in Soweto, and the bustling migrant trading quarters at Diagonal Street and Jeppestown. She’s even seen contemplating graffiti on a wall and having a quiet sit down in a park.

Experience of apartheid
We never see Theodorah/Marasela’s face. We only follow her gaze as she becomes disillusioned with Johannesburg and the modernist capitalist dream, as she feels alone against the tide of masses, and the physical, emotional and mental toll these forces take on people who try to survive it. When asked why she takes these trips as her mum/for her mum, Marasela says it’s to acknowledge that her mother’s experience of apartheid happened: “Because I guess apartheid for most people who might not have experienced harshness, might not have seen it, it’s part myth, part horror. It’s very difficult to conceive of it as something real, that could possibly happen, you know, on the scale it did.”

Marasela feels the need to validate her mother’s trauma as something beyond her illness, as an external condition imposed on black South Africans.

In these scenes of everydayness, Marasela captures the daily threat and quiet menace that lurks in these unspectacular photographs. Despite its ongoing gentrification, the city’s central business district still bears the stigmas and visible scars of its past, just like Marasela’s mum, and the larger South African psyche.

Marasela’s task is impossible – she cannot really recreate her mother’s experiences because she’s of another generation marked so differently by South Africa’s history. She can only re-stage an imagination of her mother’s stories. It’s a kind of personal memorial acknowledging apartheid as not just a physical brutalisation, but as a continued mental violation.

Why “Covering Sarah” is still relevant
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 “bio-mythographical” element. Feminist scholar bell hooks draws on Audre Lorde’s idea of “bio-mythography” as a kind of remembering which is “a general outline of an incident”, the details of which are different for each of us. It is “re-membering” as a piecing together, a textured re-telling meant to capture spirit rather than accurate detail.

In “Covering Sarah” (2005-2011), Marasela and Theodorah publicly clothe Baartman. There are quite a few sewn and lino-cut 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). They explore the changing cityscape.

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-gendered-class oppression. Her red, menstrual-like, fertile embroidery and ink lines trace a history of limitations, of troubled/troubling women and over-coming narratives, from Baartman, to her own mother, to herself.

Beyond the singular I
Even though contemporary art work 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’s” in this narrative also offer these black women’s bodies some kind of protection in South African public space where they continue to be incredibly 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.

South African black feminist Yvette Abrahams similarly speaks of the kind of wounding she deals with in discourses which inseparably implicate her in the stories of her people, the KhoiKhoi, and Sarah Baartman. In her article “Colonisalism, dysfunction and disjuncture: Sarah Bartmann’s resistance (remix)”, Abrahams brilliantly reads resistance and agency into Baartman’s (“Auntie Sarah’s”) wilful behaviour during her performance and her trials, reminding us most poignantly,

If Auntie Sarah could resist, there are none of us so alone, so isolated, or so traumatised that we cannot resist. Her story teaches us to keep trying, even when we fail at first, at second and even at third try.

Sharlene Khan is a visual artist and senior lecturer in art history and visual culture at Rhodes University. —

The Conversation

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