Usha Seejarim: Transgressing Power
Three evolving bodies of work come together in this solo exhibition by South African artist Usha Seejarim – peg, broom head, broomstick. Utility and functionality take on intriguing poetic qualities, transforming domestic quietism into a mysterious material language of wit, force, sensuousness and defiance.
It is in their organised collectivity that Seejarim’s forms take shape and become coherent. Physical manifestations of third wave feminism’s shift away from the politics of the individual, her sculptures are multiplicities of broom heads and pegs – the sum of many individual objects.
In 2018, she made a piece for Trans, an exhibition curated by Brazilian curator Daniella Géo at the University of Johannesburg. A large circle of broom heads, Sparkling Sweeper, is the antecedent of a new semi-figurative sculpture on show for the first time. Here she stands – an abstract form constituted from a most basic and everyday tool of domestic labour. She is broom; she is made up of her work. This is her life – she embodies it. But her scale, presence and stature exceed the workaday aspects of her being. She is larger than life – an otherworldly figure who is not one thing, but many. Her form is made from a multitude – an assembly of broom heads, a collective of open mouths speaking. She is utterance, speech, vocality. But also receptacle, void. As the work’s title suggests: Her latent power lies dormant.
Think of the myriad voices that have constituted the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault; the millions of women who joined mass rallies across the United States and the world as part of the Women’s March in January 2018; #IWillGoOut, when thousands of men and women from 30 cities across India walked the streets in January 2017 demanding equal rights for women in public spaces after the mass molestation event that occurred in Bengaluru and claims that ‘women should not be out after sunset’; or, closer to home, the women who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956 to protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act during apartheid. Many mouths, many voices calling for change.
There is a fundamental, organic, earthiness about this figure. Step in closely and you can smell the dried grasses. These are not mass-produced plastic brooms, but fundamental tools wrought from straw by hand – tough and hardy – ideal for sweeping dirt from streets and floors and corridors. Seejarim’s work is never purely ecstatic; it is always tethered, grounded in the grit and grind of the everyday, threaded through with a muted Marxist critique of the common conditions of female life across the planet, of the unsung drudgery of keeping house, the self-erasing servitude of motherhood, the full-time unremunerated labours of love.
But the loose patterns in the clutches of straw that make up the figure also call to mind the psychedelic dance masks inhabited by dancers of the vigorous Zaouli de Manfla, Mikishi, Mende or Nyau mask dances practised in Côte d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Sierre Leone, Malawi and Mozambique. Some masks protect villages, some counter bad spells; others are used to rejoice. Crafted from straw, these ceremonial masks transform the dancer into a fantastical, larger-than-life figure. It is along this fault line between the numinous and the everyday that Seejarim pegs her concepts.
This duality resides in the symbolic heft of the broom itself, as described in The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images:
Almost invisible among the slender, multiple trunks of a Banyan tree in India, a broom propped against the tree is illuminated and even ensouled by a mysterious play of light. In much the same way, our fantasies confer supernatural vitality upon this simple tool for sweeping made of wood and straw… Broom suggests simplicity through the elimination of what is unnecessary – the sweeping away of the illusions, strivings and attachments that clutter consciousness – and alludes to the emptiness in which unforeseen possibilities for enlightenment can spontaneously emerge… Like the feminine as anima or self, the broom can transform a space or disturb it, stirring up the dust, pulling cobwebs out of dark corners… Broom evokes sorcery, magic, sexual lewdness and lust, volatility and disinhibition. Full of uncanny energies, broom, unnoticed at the back of the broom closet, bristles with a life of its own, sweeps, dances, flies.
Broom heads, broomsticks and the phantom, totemic presence of a mysterious straw figure conjure the idea of the witch. The words ‘witch’ and ‘whore’ are commonly used to police and shame women into socially acceptable behaviour. Women who transgress sexuality are often called whores and those who transgress power tend to be called witches.[i] In this light, the flammable nature of Seejarim’s material springs to the fore, the brittle kindling that awaits the match to switch to bonfire quickly. In contemporary language, ‘witch hunt’ metaphorically refers to an investigation, usually conducted with much publicity, supposedly to uncover subversive and disloyal activity, but with the actual function of weakening political opposition. It is a metaphor drenched with the stench of carbon, undergirded with actual fire, true flesh – the bodies of hundreds of thousands of witches across time and geography – all those mad, brave, darling female heretics who dared to defy the orthodoxy, to assume oracular power and set hearts and minds aflame with dangerous ideas of freedom only to be met with execution by burning. So yes, there is that – the threat, the latent insinuation of fire.
In this solo exhibition, Seejarim takes her material play with the broom into fresh territory with a new series of sculptures forged from the wood of the broomstick. These wooden bead works threaded on wire introduce a playful new element – an exploration of the abstract possibilities of line and shape on their own terms.
Her wit comes to the fore with an installation of brooms raised off of the floor in a gesture of literal levity that simultaneously conjures the fantastic notion of the flying broomstick – the witch in flight, or the witches delight… The brooms are individually and collectively branded with the words ‘she sleeps naked’ and ‘her breasts are pointed rather than round’ – both lines from The Witch, a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Willis.
Unshackling the erotic from its dominant associations with the pornographic and the purely sexual, Seejarim’s sculptures explore the relational basis of the erotic as a more general social force – a desire for connection or relation. In her sculptures, the erotic is a function of proximity, collectivity, an imagined closeness between many bodies. Interpersonal, sexual or political, it arises out of the possibility of coming together in new ways. Recalling American writer, feminist, librarian, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s seminal essay, The Uses of the Erotic, in which she speaks of the erotic as a ‘well of replenishing and provocative force’, Seejarim’s sculptures explore the animating, transformative power of conscious, embodied making. They are smart visual puns which transform women’s commonplace tools into haikus that function as a kind of mnemopoetics of domestication transformed into desire.
The largest source of women’s unpaid labour is domestic work and Seejarim’s sculptures give subtle form to its repetitive daily rituals, the tasks that must happen over and over again to sustain a household. They occupy visual space, refusing the invisibilisation of women’s work, imaginatively asserting presence, emotion, mindfulness. More crucially, they transform it into something else.
While some works, like Vulva Pudding, are subtly connotative, others are spontaneous, intuitive exercises in the suggestive possibilities of formal composition. Abstract and non-essentialist, these new works might be read as pure play, or perhaps they begin to signal new ways for sexed bodies to signify gender. It is often the freedom of play that unmasks new meanings. It was for instance, the making of the peg sculpture shaped like an elephant’s trunk that led Seejarim to the discovery of the goddess Vinyaki, the shakti or feminine form of Ganesh.
Widely revered as the remover of obstacles, Ganesh has many attributes but is most strongly identified by his elephant head. One of the best known and most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon, his presence is everywhere, invoked at occasions like births, weddings and deaths. Seejarim grew up Hindu, but never knew of the feminine form of Ganesh. She remained hidden to her. It was only through the explorative process of making this work that she discovered the elephant-headed Hindu goddess Vinyaki. Little is told about Vinyaki in Hindu scriptures and very few images of her exist. But here she is The Mistress of Obstacles.
What is a woman? What is a peg? An object used to hold things together, hang things on, or to mark a position. She serves her plain purpose, but here – true to Dada – the tools of purpose become a plain – a surprisingly sensuous undulation of flesh laid bare. An allotment of one’s own.
In the flesh is a cut. A multivalent slash in the fabric of things, it is at once the slit, the cunt, the snatch, the twat, the pussy. A place of entry and exit, a portal to untold pleasures, and also the portal to life itself. In the same breath, the cunt is a cut – a gash forged in a sweeping stroke violence. ‘Peg’ is a noun, but it is also a verb. With sufficient strength, it is possible to ‘peg down’ an opponent. By ‘pegging’ something, we fix it at a particular level – categorise a person or thing by forming a fixed opinion of them/it. ‘He had her pegged for a slut, but she turned out to be a real sweetie.’ The cut is also just a gap – a merciful bit of empty nothing, a breath of fresh air in an endless stretch of doing and proceeding. A meditation, if you like.
Text by Alexandra Dodd
Usha Seejarim: Transgressing Power runs until July 13, 2019, at SMAC gallery Johannesburg.
April 08, 2021