Skype Conversation Senzeni Marasela and Claudia Zeiske 1 September 2009
[20:19:04] Claudia Zeiske says: Senzeni, we invited you to come to Scotland to address issues of women's self-perception, which are high on the agenda at the moment. You initially came up with a proposal to work with a group of women here. Can you remind us of your initial ideas before you came here? [20:23:28] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: Yes! I have been doing work on my mother's dresses for a very long time. I use her dresses as a canvas and tell the story of her life. My mother was a woman of her generation. She was never expected to work or have ambitions that went beyond the gate of her home. Essentially she never had a voice, in a way I speak for her and myself. I wanted to work with Scottish women and look at creating narratives on dresses. I was interested in their silences. Many obviously were through the circumstances of their lives. But they were far from the independent women we see on television. They were dependent on someone either a social worker or the social services. My culture encourages dependency amongst women. We were going to take their stories and weave them into dresses. The idea was they could wear them and people could look at their lives. [20:30:30] Claudia Zeiske says: You say in your culture, dependency amongst women is underlying society. Do you mean a network of support and friendship? And did you find this was replaced here by a 9am - 5pm social and financial support service? [20:32:44] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: The dependency on men and the idea that you only have worth once you are married to a reputable man. After that you are forced into silence. Also because we are so gendered that we are groomed for specific roles. We see very few strong and powerful women. Women are not authors of their own experiences [20:34:03] Claudia Zeiske says: Are you talking about African women here or Scottish/European women? The women that you met were more dependent on the Social Services then on men. [20:35:55] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: I am talking about both. Women in my society are encouraged to depend on men. Many never do, and in Scotland, instead of encouragement to explore other avenues they are encouraged to remain silent by the Social Service. . When one does nothing with their lives and wants to disappear behind an elaborate system such as Social Services, one is silent. Dependency and inability to help yourself is a form of silence. [20:39:37] Claudia Zeiske says: Do you think that women here and where you are at the other end of the globe do have in the end similar issues about their lives and their bodies?
[20:43:08] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: Now: yes the issues about their bodies are similar. Women have insecurities about their bodies which lead to other things as well. But the circumstances of black women are very different because black women have suffered a double oppression, one from black males and the other from white males. This condition of being trapped between both worlds has resulted in the identity of black women shifting between these two worlds. Interestingly it has led to the formation of this international look that combines all cultures. [20:45:25] Claudia Zeiske says: Tell me more about the international look. That is very intriguing. [20:49:13] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: I believe in a look that was born out of being at the middle of a battle between one world which dominated and was white, and another which was dominated black. Since the black women were trapped in this position for so long, they have sought an identity that will please both these masters. This international look is a combination of long fake hair, coloured contact lenses and tons of make up. There are claims that it is a look that cuts across all cultures, but why has it been specifically black women who have an urgent need to look international and of course other women of colour. For as long as I have known, black women were encouraged to look big. A well fed girl would turn into a sought after bride. It showed that she came from a good family and the husband was expected to look after her very well. Since the spread of magazines and other media this has been questioned a great deal. Now a beautiful black woman has to look like Barbie - a doll that has very little to do with the lives of black women. There never has been a Barbie who has lived through a famine. There are many processes that European women have gone through over the years in pursuit of beauty. And now it has lead to the emaciated look and under eating. [21:01:21] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: It is not what idealises the beauty of African women, this stick thin model. But we have become slaves of the silver screen. The more we see these thin models, the more we believe that this is the new normal. This is a new form of beauty. We are not seeing enough of these well fed women. If we were to see more than enough of these we would believe that these women are normal and beautiful. [21:03:44] Claudia Zeiske says: You have two children, Thato your youngest one came with you to Scotland. You have chosen to be a single parent. How do you think that Thato, or her generation will adapt to these changes? [21:10:06] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: Thato does not watch television, I have made this choice. Even if they do, it will be very limited. I am trying to teach her lessons in life that it is important to be healthy and busy, not to try and look like everyone else. There are more obstacles in life other than the size of her thighs. I grew up in a generation where the spread of media was new and accelerated. In her generation there will be really nothing new about girls that starve themselves. Women are taking on different positions and roles in my society. Hopefully when she is a woman, there will be more women who are getting ahead than there are in my life.
[21:12:01] Claudia Zeiske says: Do you think this perception about African women does also translate into perceptions about African art? [21:15:01] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: I grew up with a very segregated art world, where there was such a thing as township art. This depicted certain scenes about black people in a stereotypical way. People are still trapped in that mindset even today. And when you make art differently, people are almost taken back and are even shocked. Black women are more known for the crafts. Black female artists are still a novelty in the art world - especially the ones that have taken a decision to study art and travel abroad. It is difficult to imagine black woman artists outside the craft paradigm. For a long time the only art that was known to be done by black women was crafts. [21:21:55] Claudia Zeiske says: When you came here, you changed plan and decided to make a work that related to the 50th anniversary of the Barbie, which took place while you were here in Huntly. Can you tell us a bit about this work? Do you think you could have done this work also back home in Johannesburg? [21:26:26] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: I had been looking at dolls for a very long time. I usually destroyed many of these dolls especially ones that were derivatives of white dolls. I had done many performances with dolls. Whether it has been introducing the dolls to people, or taking them apart. It happened that Barbie, who for years had captured the imaginations of many young girls, was turning 50, and yet she has not aged a bit. When I was putting the ideas together, I remembered the Bluest Eye, a book by Toni Morrison. It is the story of Pecola Breedlove; she was a very tragic girl. In the book she asks one unforgettable question: "How do you do that? Make someone love you?!" She of course never gets any answers as her little life spirals out control. I wanted to understand the fascination with this thing called Barbie and exactly what she had done to deserve so much affection, much more than iwas afforded to people. I wanted to turn myself into an opposite of her and in a way be equal and create this shrine to Barbie where I would write to her and have conversations with her. I too want approval and I do not necessarily want to become a doll. I also wanted the set to be excessive and overbearing, so that it would be too much and presented in abundance, so that people could understand its excessiveness. [21:34:02] Claudia Zeiske says: When you made a call for a Barbie amnesty, what was interesting, was to find out the love-hate relationship people have with Barbie. Some people love her, others loathe her and some do both. What is your reaction when you see Thato wanting to play with Barbie? [21:46:44] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: I knew that she would be fascinated with dolls. Children find dolls very fascinating because they have a very active imagination. However I do hope that she will find dolls that look like her as resemble the story of her life and other girls that are like her. I was quite shocked that people laughed when they talked about how they destroyed their Barbies. While I did the same, it gave me no joy to destroy the dolls that I had collected. It was as though Barbie was just an outlet for their grief. Their grief came from being too short, not thin enough and fitting into the model body.
My girl plays with dolls but she is not allowed Barbie as are many other girls. I think children should be given dolls that are closely linked to the lives that they live. Barbie and her stories are too far removed from the children that live in South Africa, many of whom live in poverty. [21:51:47] Claudia Zeiske says: To finish off this conversation, I would like to ask you whether you think that you could have done the same work with the Barbies in Johannesburg? You are an international artist, do you think this and other kind of work on this issue can be made and/or transported across the globe? And also, would you have the same reception or audiences? [21:54:43] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: I would have never made it work that well here in Johannesburg. First, the struggle to find Barbie would be very challanging. Very few people that I know own those dolls because they are too expensive. Secondly, art has very few patrons, I would have to worry about who would attend. Art is still very small in South Africa, in the sense that children do not grow up with a culture of attending art shows. For too many people art has not evolved beyond a realistic picture on the wall. Yes I believe that I can transport this to the rest of the world. I am hoping to transport it to New York for the performance biennial. Performance art works much better with a responsive audience. [21:58:00] Claudia Zeiske says: Do you think you would show it in South Africa if you could, and what kind of reaction do you think people would have? [22:00:06] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: it is difficult to predict because of the above mentioned reasons, but those who would react would look at the show with great contempt, I guess. I read somewhere that women donâ€™t want to be dictated to on how they should look and behave and they do not willingly follow what Barbie does. They too make choices about their lives. [22:08:19] Claudia Zeiske says: Great, it is time to go to bed. Let me finish with a quote from Frantz Fanon's book Black Skins, White Masks:"... the man who adores the Negro is as 'sick' as the man who abominates him. Conversely, the black man who wants to turn his race white is as miserable as he who preaches hatred for the whites" I guess this applies even more to women of all colours, shapes and backgrounds. Senzeni, I thank you for this conversation. It was lovely to have you and Thato living among us here in Huntly, to inspire us and give us so many good and memorable conversations, provocations and laughter. We miss you both. [22:00:20] Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela says: Thanks Claudia, I had a good time and now I am planning the next part of my work and I am excited about the invitations I got to see other places. Thanks for all the hard work that you do in Huntly.