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Art in the everyday


Ordinary kitchen utensils have been stripped off their function and reimagined as objects of art in Usha Seejarim's new exhibition.



3 Sisters in Law
3 Sisters in Law

IT'S not every day that a housewife looks around her kitchen and sees her utensils as objects of art. But Usha Seejarim is no ordinary housewife. The artist from Bethal, a small town in Mpumalanga, says that "as a home-maker/housewife/mother of two, and an artist", she is fascinated by her everyday chores. When she is in the kitchen, her spoons, forks, knives and plates become art objects.


In her latest exhibition, Venus at Home, which opened at the Joburg Art Gallery (JAG) on 10 February, Seejarim takes a closer look at the places and the objects in her immediate surrounds, and the roles she assumes when she is around these objects. "I seem to straddle between daily chores like washing the dishes or changing [nappies] to the seemingly glamorous act of making art. These two distinctly female roles in my own life are coming together in this body of work that uses ordinary household objects as materials to create a series of sculptures and installations," she explains.


A young South African of Indian descent, Seejarim's artistic voice has been nurtured and informed by the rich heritage of her diasporic Indian environment and culture. Her artistic concern borders around identity, nationality, culture and the concept of "home".


Lotus Flowers floor installation
Lotus Flowers floor installation

Venus at Home is described as "an intensely personal project", one that Seejarim undertook "for personal resolution". The objects she uses in her sculptures and installations are completely transformed. They are stripped of their primary function and become culturally significant and gender specific.


Seejarim says her fascination with the "everyday" is probably "a search for the value of what lies behind and beyond that which is ordinary". She refers to a 1961 article entitled "Clearing the ground", by philosopher Henry Lefebvre. In it, he describes a housewife as being immersed in the everyday, needing an escape, and a mathematician as being distant from and needing a return to the everyday.


"This phenomenon of 'escape from' and 'return to' the everyday co-exist in my life as a house/homekeeper and artist. It is this dual relationship that I wish to explore in my new body of work."


Venus at Home extends Seejarim's previous preoccupation with the ordinary and explores her various positions and roles – that of a South African Indian, housewife, mother, and artist. "This was taken to its extreme in my last solo exhibition, Mine over Matter, where the investigation led to a consideration of the present moment, which is perhaps the ultimate ordinary."


Hairstyles Heart wall installation one of series of 6
Hairstyles Heart wall installation one of series of 6

Mine over Matter is just one instance in which the artist portrays her preoccupation with ordinary life. "Subsequent works have used household and ordinary objects like toothbrushes, toothpaste, tubes, bus tickets, soap bars, kwiklocks [the plastic clips used to close bread packets], earbuds, stoep polish and safety pins," she says.


Seejarim has also created video installations of rote activities like daily travel to work, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, "and making roti".


She holds a Master's degree in fine arts from the University of the Witwatersrand and a B-Tech degree in fine arts from the University of Johannesburg. She has had five solo exhibitions and several group exhibitions in France, United States, Japan, Cuba and Belgium.


Venus at Home is at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Joubert Park until 12 May. From here, it will move to the Oliewenhuis Art Museum in Bloemfontein, and then to the Durban Art Gallery in Durban, before moving to the North West University Gallery in Potchefstroom.


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Tracing Gandhi in Joburg