Interdisciplinary South African artist Senzeni Marasela and the rich global art prize she won in Germany last week

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

Sometime in 2014 in trendy Maboneng, when this gentrified part of Johannesburg East in Jeppestown, was on the up trajectory – the time when art galleries were part of the interesting mix of features of that place, I had a meeting with interdisciplinary artist Senzeani Maraela. I interviewed her for an article commissioned by a daily newspaper. The interview was ahead and in the context of her upcoming solo exhibition that was going to go up at Imba Ya Sarai Gallery, owned by gallerist Banthatile Rwasoka Molefe.

As she made her way into Pata Pata, a popular restaurant in the area, that happened to be the venue for our meeting, I was struck by the fact that she had adorned herself in a maid’s dress. Blue with white strips. My eyebrows were raised a little bit. This is because since from the time I had known her, and it had been quite years, Marasela had always stuck to practising her art. Broke or not broke. That had become clear to me that she had found her purpose. No matter what, she was going to stick to practising her art. It seemed to me to be a calling of sorts for her. I had at no point in my life and through my interaction with the artist, ever thought that she was contemplating becoming a domestic helper. Not that there is anything wrong to earn money by ironing other people’s clothes, scrubbing their dirty floors or cleaning their kitchen after they have had their dinner. It simply did not look like in my mind that is, that is the kind of a job Marasela would consider taking on.

As she took her seat. I chose not to ask about her dress sense. I normally don’t anyway. Good. She must have noticed my not so hidden facial expression anyway. Because my unasked question was soon answered as we commenced our conversation around her solo exhibition at Imba Ya Sarai. Marasela was in character. And what I had seen at that very moment was not Senzeni. It was Theodora, her alter ego.

Marasela proper actually regaled me with stories how people that knew her and those that did not, had bought into the idea that she was a domestic worker. Those years. She had to keep on explaining herself to those that asked what the domestic worker clothes were all about. As a performance art, that concept was a masterstroke as it provoked conversations around Theodora. Marasela could not have done it better.

The point is, that performance art series, has over the years morphed into different versions, and eventually the art establishment is noticing.

For example, she had an important solo show at Mocca Zeitz from December 2020 to February 2021, called Waiting for Gebane, and it really put her into the global spotlight that one. But the really big one had to wait till last week. It happened kilometres away from South Africa, her country of birth. In Germany, and no wonder the news has not yet seeped within the art sector and outside.

Marasela last week won the inaugural K21 Global Art Award, in effect positioning her as someone whose career will soon have a prominent rating in the global art shows overseas for years now. In fact the artist has held more exhibitions globally than in South Africa since graduating from art school at Wits. Fact is the major solo exhibition at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town (Mocca), granted, elevated her status within the local art establishment, her country of birth, owed her recognition for a long time.

But this one is really big and significant in the career of this artist named Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela.

“The Award recognizes the vision and courage of artists at the beginning or in the middle of their careers and will in the future be awarded annually to internationally recognized artists under the age of 45. The award contributes to the museum’s programmatic collection expansion and adds significant international voices to K21’s holdings.

The prize is awarded by the Friends of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen and is endowed with 70,000 euros (1 408 490,39). The K21 Global Art Award nomination jury is made up of five renowned curators* from around the world. The 2022/23 jury consists of Doryun Chong (M+, Hong Kong), Koyo Kouoh (Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town), Omar Kholeif (Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE), Oluremi C. Onabanjo (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), and Jochen Volz (Pinacoteca doEstado de São Paulo, Brazil),” media release from the organises reads.

“I am delighted that my work is having an impact here in Düsseldorf – and hopefully soon beyond the city limits. All my adult life I have worked with dedication as an artist, and I see this award as an incentive to work with even more conviction and determination. I am grateful to the jury of the K21 Global Art Award and the Friends of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen for believing in my artistic practice. I hope that this is the beginning of great discussions and cooperations. I also hope that this is a journey that will inspire young artists* around the world, especially in Africa.” Senzeni Marasela, last week.

Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela (b. 1977, in Thokoza, South Africa) is an interdisciplinary artist whose œuvre combines performance, photography, video, embroidered textiles, printmaking and installations. In 1998 she completed her art studies at the University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg. Her work has been widely exhibited in South Africa, Europe, and the United States, and is in important international collections. In 2015, Marasela was represented at the 56th Venice Biennale. She lives and works in Soweto.

“At the center of the selection of works acquired for the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen is a red dress. Theodora Mthetyane, the fictional alter ego of the artist Senzeni Marasela, received it as a gift from her husband, Gebane, when he left the country for the big city of Johannesburg to find work. The ornamentally printed Iseshweshwe dress is worn by married women in Xhosa culture and is widely worn by the rural population. Theodora also wore it every day, while she waited unsuccessfully for years for Gebane to return. Senzeni Marasela, who uses Theodora to allude to her mother’s story and to the situation of many South African women during the apartheid era, wore the dress herself every day for a long period of six years (2013 to 2019). With this haunting performance, she embodied Theodora’s story, dedicated to the situation of waiting, loneliness and hope, experiencing different reactions ranging from identification to discrimination. The project Waiting for Gebane resulted in Maraselaerster large institutional solo exhibition at Zeitz MOCAA in 2020, in which the groups of works presented here were also exhibited,” the organisers cite.

It is quite interesting and perhaps ironic that the very same image that I and others had thought was a testimony to Marasela’s new job as a domestic helper, is the same one that has propelled her to the height of the global art establishment’s ranking. Congratulations to Senzeni.

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