Exhibition of Interest

Theodorah’s return to Johannesburg

with Senzeni Marasela

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Working in long-form semi-autobiograohical performance, installation, print-making, collage, painting, and handstiched tapestries, among many other mediums, Senzeni Marasela is a multidisciplinary artist who has invested the last seven years of her life to an investigative practice. Her institutional on-going and open-ended, but retrospective show, Waiting for Gebane, is currently showing at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Featured in this week’s Of Interest, we consider Marasela’s use of Johannesburg as a site and material to contemplate the Black femme in neocolonial metropolises. 

There is a woman in Johannesburg. You may have seen her wandering. Making her way through the city’s central business districts, past landmarks into fictional and temporary lands where Black femmehood begets rest, she wears khiba ya seshoeshoe, a dress that I only ever see worn by family matriarchs during the early, most laborious, hours of family gatherings. New to the city, her name is Theodora. Searching (and waiting) for her husband, Gebane who left for Johannesburg seeking employment, the city embraces (or absorbs) her, showing its brutal true colours. Associated with domestic labour, efficiency, invisibility, demure countenance, obedience, unconditional endurance and matriarchal stoicism, the Khiba, on a Black woman, becomes an apt means explore their conventionalised objectification throughout a six-year inhabited durational performance. Set up against a busy, apathetic and vampiric Johannesburg, the audience watches as she searches. Complicit, the public, like Johannesburg, witnesses without intervening, letting her cling to promises designed to never materialise.

A character conceptualised and performed by Senzeni Marasela, one of South Africa’s most prolific contemporary artists, Theodorah presents a platform where the Black woman’s experiences, regarding migration, displacement, abandonment, aspirations as redemption, dismissed labours, capitalism’s unfulfilled promises and deliberate erasure are not only considered but centralised.

Making its debut at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) in 2021, the first iteration of Waiting for Gebane was an integral institution show in developing the Black femme character’s storyline in contemporary art. Like Lindiwe Mngxitama wrote for Bubblegum Club, “highlighting a will and determination which resists the idea of waiting as a postponement of life, and the erasure or invisibility of women. Theodorah does not wait for justice or liberation. Through her performed hyper visibility, she reclaims the ‘unrecoverable’ years.”

However the show’s work would be incomplete without its stay at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Beyond its museum role JAG becomes a full circle moment for Theodora. Her fate and conclusion unknown, the institution offers Theodora what she never had: active consideration and contemplation, not as an object but for her humanity. Once the seeker, Theodorah becomes the sought after.

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Ruth Ige. Don't hide your glory, 2022.
Acrylic on canvas. 122 x 122cm. (© Copyright 2022, STEVENSON. All rights reserved)