I recently caught up with artist, and now curator, Usha Seejarim, on her playful approach to art making; her award winning booth at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair; and on newly inhabiting the curatorial realm for the Standard Bank Gallery’s showcase of it’s collection in the ‘I am because you are: A search for Ubuntu with permission to dream’ exhibition.
Nolan Stevens: How did you end up wearing the curator’s hat for the ‘I am because you are’ exhibition?
Usha Seejarim: I got approached by Standard Bank. It was quite a surprise because I’m not a curator. It is quite a big job for a curator, but they said they wanted a fresh take on the collection. I think they were keen on me because of my background in art education. Having said that it wasn’t easy for me because it was out of my comfort zone.
Further than that I wasn’t given any thematic brief. They said they wanted more of their recent acquisitions, because the collection is quite extensive, it’s got works from the 1600’s and older. It was quite overwhelming because of the sheer number of works. It was also challenging because the brief was so open-ended. I eventually started off looking at the constitution because last year our constitution celebrates 21 years, and then I became aware that this year would be Nelson Mandela’s centenary and then I also thought we’re over two decades into our democracy. The question that came to mind was where is Ubuntu? Zuma was at his height, and then it got worse; the energy at the time around South Africa felt very negative. I didn’t want to reflect that negativity with this collection I wanted to say something positive or constructive. The question of where is Ubuntu became the catalyst for this exhibition, and hence the whole theme is built around a search for Ubuntu. Together with that the title includes the words ‘with permission to dream,’ because we forget that we can have a vision for the future.
How far away was the conceptualisation and thinking process of this exhibition to your process as an independent artist?
I think very similar, because I don’t think I approached this in the same way a curator would. I approached it like an artist. With this being elements of an artwork which an artist puts together. Essentially, we’re creating relationships as a curator, with the artworks feeding off of each other. We’re creating conversations between the works. When I make art I take irons and hangers and I put them together and see what happens. I put a whole lot of pegs together and play with them, so that’s what I did here: I started putting things together and playing around and seeing what happens when I put this next to this. It was somewhat intuitive because I allowed the works to ‘speak,’ but also there was a lot of layering, which is how I make work.
When you say that you think you approached it differently to the way a traditional curator would have, what do you think a traditional curators process would be like?
I’m not sure, but I think I was more playful. Maybe they’re not so playful? Maybe they’re more academic? Maybe they’re more structured? Physically my process saw me cutting out little thumbnails. I’d spread them out, cut them up, stick them all together again. When I arrived here for installation I had them all stuck onto different piles in my head. I’d played around with the arrangement and the space quite a bit and knew what needed to go where . I had these little pieces of paper everywhere and told them ‘Okay, this is what this means.’ I’ve never seen a curator work like that before. The need was quite visual for me as a visual artist and I physically had to move works around.
How did you manoeuvre through the challenges of working with the double-storied space of the gallery?
I created different narratives. The main narrative is upstairs and within that there is an inside space and an outside space, or like an inner-circle and an outer-circle. The narrative starts on the outside and is a little different theme to the inside. One space has an iconic or symbolic unique ‘African-ness’ about it, while the one with the video works is a much more of an illustration of Ubuntu. With the middle being for the interactive response walls.
Did you curate this exhibition simultaneously with the booth for the Cape Town art Fair?
This was a whole year’s work, and the Art Fair was a culmination of years of work. Both were a process which didn’t happen overnight. At different stages of the year it was different things; I spent quite a bit of time on the catalogue and the writing of the text and working with other people who’ve contributed to the catalogue.
For those who haven’t seen your installation at the Cape Town Art Fair how is it different or similar to your Johannesburg Art Gallery showing for example?
It’s a continuation of the work I showed at JAG, in fact one of the pieces on at JAG which was called Cow’s Head, which is a iron and a hanger, was made into a multiple of 29 more called Herd. I wanted to make an accumulation of it.
Could you give a little insight into your work by unpacking one of the works that made up your installation at Cape Town Art Fair?
Cow’s Head and Herd are references to Picasso’s Bull’s Head, which is a bicycle seat and a bicycle handlebar together. It’s an iconic piece. So if you know that work and you know the title, then you’ll know that I’m directly referencing that work. It’s almost a subversion of his work. I’ve made a female version of it. The iron, in particularly, is such a gendered object. It’s about the stereotypes and expectations of women. The complexity of it is that women are both averse to it and simultaneously embrace it. That’s the tension for me.
My reading of it was a little different to that, though. I saw it as a comment on the traditional lobola practice.
Yes, it’s got that, by virtue of the fact that it’s about cows and women. It’s got references to lobola, it’s got references to the sacredness of the cow in Eastern cultures and somebody even said that it looks like a uterus. There’s so many references, the collective, in the fact that it’s a herd.
I’m wondering whether that playfulness you are able to tap onto especially when it came to your booth installation came about because it was a case of entering a fertilised realm?
There is a comfort there. I think I’ve also matured a bit in the last few years, you learn to stress less, but I also had time, which helps. I had time to play; take things out and put things in I’d done it all on paper, and also we put up the installation well in advance.
What was the encompassing theme with this space?
The starting point was the Cow’s Heads, and the title of my booth was ‘Keepers of the Common’, because my work has been about the common, the ordinary, the mundane, and I thought, ‘Who holds this?’ I didn’t want to use the word ‘women’ in its title, plus it’s already there by virtue of using these gendered objects, I don’t need to sell it out. Keepers also alludes to us holding hints, we keep It, it’s safe.
What happens now after winning this award? What’s next for you?
I think this gives a certain recognition to my work and I think I’m the kind of artist who’s been working quite consistently but suddenly people are noticing.
I have such a busy year ahead. I’m fortunate to be showing at the Dakar Biennale, along with a number of group shows, and I’ve been selected to be one if three people to submit work for a public artwork in Belgium. So without sounding unappreciative I can’t stay put. I’ve got so much else to do.