Usha Seejarim is probably best known as the artist who created the 2 m high, beaded portrait of Nelson Mandela which formed the backdrop to his state funeral in 2013.
One of the most visible South African Indian artists, she creates multimedia works and is responsible for curating exhibitions, holding workshops and creating large scale public works. Seejarim has received numerous awards and accolades for her artworks over the years.
Seejarim was born in Mpumalanga (1974) and while she was still at school, began taking art classes at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBU). After matriculating, she studied Fine Arts culminating in her obtaining a Master’s Degree from University of Witwatersrand (Wits). She also has a teacher training certificate and has worked as a lecturer and trainer. Her interest in craft and teaching has led to her facilitating numerous community based art projects which allow for public participation. As a young artist Seejarim was awarded residencies in Cape Town and New York. She has exhibited at numerous group exhibitions nationally and internationally and has had 7 solo exhibitions to date.
Usha Seejarim has received several private and public commissions, one of the earliest being Pincode – a 6.5 m chandelier made out of approximately 140 000 safety pins joined together. It is installed in the foyer of the MTN head office in Johannesburg.
Another commission was for a mural at Eskom’s head office at Megawatt Park in Johannesburg. This mural depicts different types of renewable energy and is made out of coloured electric wire.
In 2008 Seejarim was commissioned by the South African Government to create sunscreens for the exterior of the South African Chancery in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Seejarim used thousands of pop rivets on the mesh screen to create a design inspired by San paintings.
Usha Seejarim’s artworks are explorations of the daily rituals, domestic routines and other mundane objects and activities that we encounter in our everyday existence. She works in a variety of media; using found objects to create assemblages, or uses photographic images and videos to tell stories.
Seejarim’s early works focused on travel – the daily commute by car, bus or train that most people undertake. Her works from this period feature images of trucks, used bus tickets, old car ashtrays and photographs taken during her daily commute from Lenasia to Johannesburg.
In 2001, Seejarim created a video installation called Two Rooms and a Kitchen, in which she interviewed a group of 14 elderly Indian people, most of them second or third generation South Africans. The installation is a replica of the setting found in most working class Indian homes with a draylon couch and cheap vinyl fooring. Three screens on the wall show different interviewees speaking and Seejarim’s intention was to engage the viewer as if he were part of the conversation.
The theme of the journey runs through the video, firstly in the subjects’ recollection of the immigration of their parents or grandparents, or in the case of Mr. Parshotam- who was born in India and arrived in South Africa in 1923 – his own recollections. Secondly in the dislocation of Indians through forced removals and the Group Areas act. Most of the group had originally lived in Fietas before being forced to move to Lenasia.
In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s Fietas along with Sophiatown and Alexandra were the only areas where people of colour could live in Johannesburg. Within Fietas, the area called Pageview was predominantly Indian (referred to as the Coolie Location), although black, Malay and Chinese families also lived there. Most families rented small cottages comprised of ‘two rooms and a kitchen’ and four such cottages shared a yard, a toilet and bathroom. Despite having no electricity and cramped conditions, the group fondly remembered the sense of community as well as the sporting and cultural events that they experienced.
“But you know the way people mingled there, Fietas was like one big happy family. When it was Diwali, it was celebration for everybody. The Tamil people used to celebrate and with them everybody else would, because they used to help with the preparations and cooking… When it was Ramadan time, the same thing.” (Anjilay Naidoo)
In 1956 Pageview was declared a white area and Indians were relocated to the newly created township of Lenasia, some 35 km southwest of Johannesburg. Lenasia had no electricity, no sewage systems, undeveloped roads and was isolated from most services. There were no shops, medical services, police stations, fire stations or telephone lines.
“Oh God, I didn’t like it, I didn’t like Lenz. I cried for three months when I came here. I wanted to go back from where I came. I didn’t like this place at all. It was like a jungle, there wasn’t much houses. It was only bundus, like you know grasses and that.”(Fatima Sali)
In the video many of the women remember their despair at leaving behind all that was familiar to move to this unwelcoming space. The journey from Lenasia to Johannesburg took two hours by car- a luxury few had. Since most of the people in the township worked in the city, either as waiters, cleaners, shop assistants or in factories, they had to take the train to Johannesburg and then trams or buses to work. They recall the cold early mornings and how exhausted they were after long hours of standing in overcrowded trains.
“Ja, it was hard, transport was terrible. If you missed the one train in the morning, you can stay at home, there was no other train to go to work”(Annamala Thandrand)
This video installation is important as a recording of the oral history of a group of ordinary people that would otherwise be forgotten. They have lived through the changes brought about through apartheid, political unrest and that of the new democracy which they find bewildering. There are many misconceptions about how Indians were treated under apartheid, and this video is a clear account of the poverty and harsh living conditions that they were subjected to. However, this is balanced in many ways by the subjects’ sense of humor and their fond recollections of family and a shared sense of community where people supported each other.
Seejarim’s more recent works focus on domestic routines and the way they impact on women’s lives. She reconfigures discarded or used items like steam irons, hangers, pegs or brooms turning them into into artworks.
Seejarim believes that women use the same tools every day, in the same way and that little has changed over the generations. Despite the fact that women have equal rights, are professionals, are well educated and earn good salaries – domestic chores still seem to fall within their ambit. By putting these “tools” such as brooms and scouring pads into a new context, we are forced to view them differently and perhaps wonder why some things do not change.
The two installations titled Three Sisters in Law and Lotus Flowers are from Seejarim’s 2012 exhibition titled Venus at Home. Venus is the goddess of love and the title is a play on the concept of woman as domestic ‘goddess’ – a term euphemistically used to refer to a women’s role as a housewife which is neither glamorous nor romantic.
In Three Sisters in Law, the handles of three brooms are bound together with bangles. In Indian culture bangles are a symbol of married women. In the past sisters in law within an extended family would run the household together. They would share the burden of cooking, cleaning and childcare thus supporting each other. These relationships seldom exist today and women generally feel overworked, overextended and alienated.
Usha Seejarim has a large body of diverse work and is an active participant within the art world. She continues to make art that reflects the concerns of ordinary people and that is rooted in the mundane routines that we all experience.
Bedford, E. 2003. Usha Seejarim. Vol.7 Fresh
Seejarim,U. 2006. The Photograph and the Ticket.
Perryer, S. 2004. Ten Years Hundred Artists.