Sethembile Msezane is a Cape Town based artist, born in KwaZulu-Natal, bred in Joburg and currently pursuing her MFA degree at UCT. Her performance art work, The Public Holiday Series, is raising important questions about our past, present and women’s bodies in public spaces. ELLE sat down with Sethembile and found out more about her work.
ELLE: How did the Public Holiday Series come about?
Sethembile Msezane (SM): The Public Holiday series came about from a performance that I did on Heritage Day in 2013, where I felt dislocated in a space where I had lived for five years. I took my identity as a Zulu woman out of the context of uMemulo (my coming of age ceremony), which happened at home in Soweto, and placed it in the space where I currently reside and exist in Cape Town. I performed in various public spaces that day, but the most interesting conversation in the work happened between my character and Louis Botha’s statue outside Parliament. In 2014, I performed again on Human Rights Day (previously known as Sharpeville Day), but I still didn’t have a sense that this was becoming a series until after contextualising the two performances. I realised from my own consciousness that there is a shift in awareness amongst the youth, where there is an attempt to transcend the legacy of apartheid by transforming contemporary South African society through public debates, music, art, etc. By performing on public holidays my intentions were to contrast historic events with current issues, and through this process expose how history often repeats itself, such as how Human Rights Day in 1960 (previously known as Sharpeville Day) can be closely aligned with the massacre in Marikana (2013).
ELLE: Untitled (Heritage Day) 2013 is relevant now because of the #RhodesMustFall movement. What are your thoughts?
SM: When I began the series with Untitled (Heritage Day) 2013, I realised how powerful statues can be, and was thus mindful of their impact on society. I’m of the belief that we cannot erase history, or else how will future generations learn from our mistakes? I do believe that some histories are damaging to a society, such as the Rhodes’ statue in question. The statue needs to fall because it is not only damaging to black students and staff but also to white individuals because it fosters the thought that it is acceptable in a democratic South Africa to have and enact oppressive views, which is the legacy of colonialism.
ELLE: Can you comment on the female body and the policing of it, as a form of protest sometimes approached in your work?
SM: By utilising my body in performances I am trying to place the importance of (black) women back into the South African landscape. I think there is visible absence of our existence and contribution to this country’s liberation within memorialised public spaces. The boundaries that still restrict women in movement, dress and body form are a reality in present day South African society and across the world. In my Untitled (Women’s Day) 2014, I asserted my gender bare-breasted in Langa Freedom Square close to a taxi rank, a place that has a history of women being active in the struggle against apartheid. This setting questioned violence against women in general, but more so in taxi ranks, as in the case of Noord Taxi Rank in Johannesburg in 2012, where two teenage girls were harassed, groped and photographed inappropriately by some 60 men because one wore a mini-skirt and the other leggings.
See the gallery of Sethembile’s work below.
Main Image: Untitled (Heritage Day) 2013