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Celebrating female South African artists

In the (re) making of South Africa’s history, the efforts of women were often left out of the dominant narrative. So we celebrate the work of three female artists whose work reclaims the female body, and, in so doing, the South African woman’s place in history

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As we are celebrating women and the legacies of women in South Africa this month, we also pay tribute to some influential South African female artists. Their work is often highly personal and political and relates to the intersections of race, gender and class in South Africa. In this edition we look at some older and newer work that centers the body and resistance. There has been a long tradition of using the body as a form of resistance within the arts. Bodies have become sites of resistance against, for example, patriarchal gender norms, oppression, colonial history and commodification.

For various reasons South African women and their crucial role in history have been invisible to many. In the (re) making of South Africa’s history, the efforts of women were often left out of the dominant narrative. Reclaiming the female body – literally and figural – then also becomes a site of reclaiming one’s place in history. It’s a process to which female visual artists have greatly contributed in South Africa.

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In the work of Berni Searle, especially in an older piece, the 2001 Venice Biennale video commission titled Snow White, we see why the body is such a contested site. Searle is one of South Africa’s most renowned artists and is known to work a lot on the body and themes such as self-representation, gender, history and race. In Snow White the idea of ‘whitewashing’ clearly refers to colonial practices. Searle is physically covered in snow. Here the idea of (in)visibility becomes very literal. Although this work was made in 2001 and to a large extent also links to apartheid and living under oppression, it is still extremely relevant today. It signifies how many women are still struggling with issues specifically related to race and gender and are often not as visible or invisible as they wish to be.

Her work is also strongly related to the power of women’s collective action and protest. In various African countries, the naked body has been explicitly used in protests. Recently, a young woman protested naked in front of the Nelson Mandela Square. Some have read this as a political protest. Searle is also known to use her own body in her work as a form of resistance.

"Sophie-Ntombikayise", 2009. Mixed media installation. © Mary Sibande. Photograph: Momo Gallery Johannesburg

“Sophie-Ntombikayise”, 2009. Mixed media installation. © Mary Sibande. Photograph: Momo Gallery Johannesburg

The young visual artist Mary Sibande also used her own body in her work. She molded her alter-ego life size sculpture Sophie after her own body. Sophie is a domestic worker with a lot of dreams and fantasies. Her work relates to the harsh realities for black domestic workers in South Africa today. Sophie represents a lot of women who work as servants their whole lives and are often in inferior positions towards their employer. Here race and class relations play an important role. The fact that so many households have domestic workers is also a reflection of the current socio-economic reality in South Africa.

"I’m a Lady", 2009. © Mary Sibande. Photograph: Momo Gallery Johannesburg

“I’m a Lady”, 2009. © Mary Sibande. Photograph: Momo Gallery Johannesburg

Often domestic workers are seen as a homogenous group, as if they are without individual lives, ideas, dreams and hopes. In her work Sibande explores the problematic historical power dynamics that are at play. We follow Sophie’s fantasies in her working uniform that is slowly transformed – together with her dreams. We see Sophie in a long blue Victorian dress playing out several of her fantasies. In her work we clearly feel the tension between how black female bodies are viewed and subjected to stereotypical ideas, and the idea of taking back control. Race and gender in her work are also understood in a colonial framework – one that is crucially important not to forget today.

Tracey Rose, Span II, 1997. Installation view on 'Graft’. 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, South African National Gallery

Tracey Rose, Span II, 1997. Installation view on ‘Graft’. 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, South African National Gallery

Artists such as Tracey Rose, who has been around in the South African visual arts scene for a long time, have used performance art as a form of gender resistance. Her work can also be seen as a form of visual activism in which feminism plays a big role. In her earlier work she also often used her own body and hair. For instance, at the Second Johannesburg Biennale 1997 in Span II, Rose could be viewed in a glass case. She had shaven her hair off and sat naked in her glass case and in a second performance she started knotting the hair. As many have said before, her work has been and a phenomenal contribution to South Africa’s visual arts. Rose has subverted and converted many ideologies that hold patriarchal believes in stand. In this work, she also pays homage to women who have been put on display during colonial times such as Saarjie Baartman.