In 2016, the Johannesburg artist, Senzeni Marasela, began a series of works representing well-known singer and performer, Dolly Parton. Comprised of photocopies of iconic images of Parton that have been overlaid with images of Marasela herself, these works involve a second layer of performance: wearing a dress constituted from red isishweshwe fabric, the urban, single and progressive Marasela appears in the series wearing a garment that is standard amongst many conservative married women in rural areas, particularly the Eastern Cape.
Marasela’s wearing of a red isishweshwedress is part of a performance she has been undertaking since 2013 that has its roots in a series, “Theodorah in Johannesburg”, begun some ten years earlier. In 2003, Marasela read the newly released Cry of Winnie Mandelain which Njabulo Ndebele, its author, speaks of women’s experiences of waiting for years for departed men to return to them. These women are, as Ndebele describes them, “Penelope’s descendants” – that is, modern incarnations of the woman in Homer’s Odysseywho waits nineteen years for Odysseus to return from his travels. Ndebele’s book and its stories motivated Marasela’s “Theodorah in Johannesburg” series – works that focus on a woman from a remote rural home wandering the city, seeking the whereabouts of a long-absent partner.
“Theodorah” is the name of Marasela’s mother who left Matatiele in the Eastern Cape in 1966 to join Marasela’s father, whom she had recently married, in Soweto. But the man whom the Theodorah in “Theodorah in Johannesburg” is seeking was inspired not by Marasala’s father but rather by the cousin of her mother: like countless other men seeking work in cities who eventually made alternative lives and sometimes established new families there, this cousin had disappeared to Johannesburg, leaving his wife and four children without any financial support or means of contacting him for fifteen years.
When Marasela began wearing a red isishweshwedress in 2013, she took the theme of “Theodorah in Johannesburg” to a new level by not simply representingthe numerous women in South Africa cast in the role of “Penelope’s descendants” through the advent of migrant labour as well as political and economic imperatives that drew their menfolk elsewhere, but also by performingit. If interpreted in the light of work by a theorist such as Judith Butler (1999) who has highlighted how gender identities are assumed rather than being intrinsic to their subjects, Senzeni’s performance is about more than these women’s stories of waiting and loss: it is additionally their enactment of a social construction of appropriate womanliness that is important. Playing one who waits faithfully for an absent man to return, this ideal woman never wavers in her fidelity nor questions why her destiny is to stay behind on the margins of history.
But why Dolly Parton?
Looking through photographs, Marasela remembered how, as a child, her parents took her and her five siblings to a nearby photo-studio where they had photographs taken of themselves against fantastical backgrounds such as Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower. Then, during a visit to Matatiele in 2013, when she visited a friend of her mother who had a collection of Parton memorabilia, she was reminded of the extensive airtime given to Parton’s music on South African radio stations in the 1960s and 1970s – how the singer’s fans were not only in urban locales but also rural ones and included not only many white Afrikaners but also numerous black South Africans. Appearing often on television in the 1980s and 1990s, Parton had in turn became part of Marasela’s own experience of growing up. Associated by Marasela with the family’s role-playing during visits to the local photo-studio, she remembered how Dolly Parton was constructed as an inspirational icon for her parents’ generation especially. A woman who had reached heights of success despite her lowly birth as one of twelve children in rural Tennessee and who highlighted rather than disowned her hillbilly origins, she suggested that South Africans from even the most marginalised, impoverished and disenfranchised of circumstances could, likewise, find happiness and success.
Most crucially, Dolly Parton – like, Marasela, in her isishweshwe dress – performswomanliness. Or as Leigh Edwards (2017) interprets Parton’s ongoing construction of self, she encapsulates an image that combines the town tramp and the pure mountain girl. Defusing the efficacy of these two stereotypes through their ironic conjunction, Parton also uses camp exaggeration in such a way as to articulate the feminist message that gender roles are simply assumed by women rather than intrinsic to their being. Roles that are assumed rather than intrinsic can of course be shifted, and, in such a formulation, a woman can resist the constructs into which she is acculturated. One might thus argue that, by imaging herself in a red isishweshewedress meeting up with Parton, Marasela is not simply illustrating a key category of Parton fan meeting her icon. More importantly, she is exposing the fact that her own costume is a form of camp artifice and that she too is self-consciously adopting a construct of appropriate womanliness in such a way as to transgress and question it.
Author: Brenda Schmahmann