Elfriede Dreyer

Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela, 2015 – 2016, Watercolour on A3 Fabriano paper. Courtesy Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela

Decolonising the nomad: Senzeni Marasela

South African artist Senzeni Marasela depicts herself and her mother as nomads or pilgrims in the city of Johannesburg, and she links their stories to the 19th century narrative of Sarah Baartman.

  • Elfriede Dreyer
    Elfriede Dreyer

    Over the last three-and-a-half centuries, South Africa has experienced volatile and turbulent histories of a colonial, postcolonial and global kind. These brought on substantial nomadic movement of people, leading to political and social displacement, and hybrid identities. Since 1652, as a multifariously colonised country South Africa has shown cultural patterns of movement in and out of the country, and from place to place. The country is extraordinarily rich in mineral resources and gold, which has brought about massive wealth, but also instability. Johannesburg was established in 1886, due to the so-called gold rush, with fortune seekers and diggers flooding from all over the world to the country. Since then, the gold mines have attracted an influx of locals as workers, which contributed to much nomadism, but ironically – especially since 1948 during apartheid – such mine workers were allowed to work underground but once above ground they had to return to townships outside the large cities. During apartheid, non-whites or ‘people of colour’ were removed from the city and forcibly established in townships outside the city; they were only allowed as workers into the city; and had to carry passbooks (identity documents) on them all the time.


    Such nomadic identity as a result of marginalisation and displacement is still presiding, but for different reasons since 994 and the end of apartheid. From this time onwards there has been a immense influx of people from all over the African continent to South Africa in search of greener pastures. Whereas during apartheid many intellectuals and people ‘of colour’ emigrated from the country, over the past two decades there has been an outflux of people due to a strong degree of political uncertainty and actions of political redress in the post-apartheid constitution, or to convicted beliefs of ‘not belonging’ to the new political dispensation.

    Senzeni Marasela’s series of works entitled Waiting for Gebane (2015-2016) entails a continuation of her previous work, such as the embroidery series Theodorah in Johannesburg (2006) and Sarah, Senzeni and Theodorah come to Joburg (2011). In the latter works she explored her relationship with Johannesburg as city and experiences her mother had when she first arrived there. She used embroidery as technique and thread due to its associations of fragility, and conceptually she considered the issue of black women in migration to the cities. Theodorah was depicted as travelling to the city with the aim to finding out exactly what it is that has made many people disappear into Johannesburg. She is uncertain of what she is actually looking for. In the 2014 exhibition catalogue for Nomad bodies at the Wintertuin gallery of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (curator: Elfriede Dreyer), Marasela stated that “I continuously return to the city, looking and relooking as it undergoes massive transformation. Having grown up in a catholic environment, penance informs a great deal of methods which are labour intensive. The city of gold is important as a transitory space: people go through the city, they come to the city and many dream of this city. There is something impermanent about this city, and it is precisely at this point that I began to write my own histories. The social climate of the city has never been favourable to the women that enter it. It is deliberate that I leave the city arid, without indications of lived experiences, as I seek to build the Johannesburg I can safely occupy.”


    However, in Sarah, Senzeni and Theodorah come to Joburg the artist includes herself and Sarah Baartman also as nomads or pilgrims in the city. The three women’s plights are fundamentally different – Theodorah is on ajourney looking for her lost son Gebane; Senzeni is on her journey finding her foothold as individual, and colonial Sarah was displaced to Europe from the Eastern Cape– but they are one in their search for a place, recognition and restitution. They are each other’s doppelganger in their journey through the city of Johannesburg which forms the backdrop to the works. The metaphor of the rhizome is of particular interest to an engagement with nomadic identity in the context of a continent such as Africa. Already in 1987 Deleuze and Guattari (1987:7). coined the idea of rhizomatic being, stating that the “rhizome itself assumes many diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion in bulbs and tubers”. Living on a vast continent, Africans are accustomed to long journeys; however, poverty, violence, civil wars, imperial infiltrations and oppression have resulted in a generalised nomadic condition where people are constantly moving and travelling in the search for a better life and even survival. However, in a wider sense, globally, Rosi Braidotti (2011:3) states that the nomadic predicament and its multiple contradictions have come to age in the third millennium after years of debate on the “’nonunitary’ – split, in process, knotted, rhizomatic, transitional, nomadic – so that fragmentation, complexity and multiplicity have become everyday terms in critical theory.” Braidotti has been engaged since the 1990s with the question as to what the political and ethical conditions of nomadic subjectivity are, grounded in a “politically invested cartography of the present condition of mobility in a globalized world” (Braidotti 2011:4).


    Zygmunt Bauman (in Hall & Du Gay 1996:19) views the ontologies of nomadic identity as becoming critical when there is uncertainty as to where one belongs, a view that is crucially relevant to emerging urbanising African identity. `the figure of Theodorah can be aligned with the idea of the flâneur, which Bauman appropriates in his presentation of the stereotype of the pilgrim who as a stroller is on a teleological journey – ordered, determined and predictable (Bauman in Hall & Du Gay 1996:21). Comparing the contemporary world to a desert through its fragmentation, Bauman views it as being inhospitable to the notion of the pilgrim, being unable to leave a footprint in the sand. The forward march of the pilgrim (Theodorah) is equally compromised and in the context of the wind effacing footprints (of Gebane) and the rhythmical similarity of the desert environment, the pilgrim goes in circles (Bauman in Hall & Du Gay 1996:23). “The overall result is the fragmentation of time in episodes, each one cut from its past and from its future, each one self-enclosed and self-contained. Time is no longer a river, but a collection of ponds and pools” (Bauman in Hall & Du Gay 1996:25).


    As in these afore-mentioned works, in the series Waiting for Gebane the artist’s mother is depicted as going from her rural environment to the ‘big city’, Johannesburg, in a search for her son Gebane who left for the city and never returned. She becomes a nomad in her searching ritual, but it is a dystopian journey, providing no teleological “good ending” and leading nowhere, since she cannot find him. The works depict a potent image of Africans searching for a better life elsewhere, but simultaneously failing in finding answers to their economic and other dilemmas. Waiting for Gebane explores cultural and artistic mappings of the social and political power geographies and complexities that dominate cities. Of pertinent interest here is how people’s decolonial transition from rural to urban contexts have been voiced, claimed, renegotiated and contested, especially in the context of capital cities as locations where there is a conflation of global and local influences. Mendieta (2001:15, 23) argues that cities have become the “vortex of the convergence of the processes of globalization and localization … [and] epitomes of glocalization, to use Robertson’s language (1994)”; and that the “city is the site at which the forces of the local and the global meet: the site where the forces of transnational, finance capital, and the local labour markets and national infra-structures enter into conflict and contestation over the city.”


    In Marasela’s work, contemporary African identity is characterised by particular cultural histories, as well as by identifiable patterns of transitivity and how people construct their identities psycho-geographically. Dispossession of the embodied and embedded self is articulated so that the city and placelessness become sides of the same coin (Braidotti 2011:6). Braidotti (2011:7) argues that “The contrast between an ideology of free mobility and the reality of disposable others brings out the schizophrenic character of advanced capitalism”, which is nowhere more visible than in the political and social extremities in South Africa. Marasela’s work expresses the idea that meaning is created through the crossing of space and distance between bodies, or as Soja (1989:133) argues, “To be human is not only to create distances but to attempt to cross them, to transform primal distance through intentionality, emotion, involvement, attachment.”


    New decolonised Identities emerge through movement through in the world and interfaces with alterity. Often, it is a sense of alterity or the attraction to the exotic other that produces nomadism. Waiting for Gebane thus presents the ambivalent Baumanian idea of the pilgrim-tourist who keeps going in circles, driven by a non-teleological sense of survival and looking for a better life, which might not lead to a ‘good ending’. Nomadic identity is essentially rhizomatic here, and in South Africa – also in an amplified sense on the African continent – the drive to belong and the utopian quest for a better life have resulted in identity being redefined, renegotiated, rerooted and sprouting in many directions.


    Senzeni Marasela is a female South African artist of Zulu origin, born in Thokoza, KwaZulu Natal in 1977. She is currently completing a MA degree in Art History from Wits University (SA); she has exhibited widely in the national and international contexts; and she has been awarded several grants and residencies, for example from Devon Arts Residency (Scotland) The Ampersand Foundation and Axis Gallery in New York; The Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam; and the Kokkola Art Academy in Vasa. Her artist website is found at http://www.senzenimarasela.com.




    • Braidotti, R. 2011. Nomadic subjects: embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. Second edition. Gender and culture: A series of Columbia University Press. New York: University of Columbia Press.
    • Deleuze, G & Guattari, F. 1987 [1980, French original]. A thousand plateaus. New York: University of Minnesota.
    • Hall, S and Du Gay, P (eds). 1996. Questions of cultural identity. London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
    • Mendieta, E. 2001. Invisible cities: a phenomenology of globalization from below. City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action 5(1):7–26.
    • Soja, E. 1989. Postmodern geographies: the reassertion of space in critical social theory. New York/London: Verso.



    published February 2020