'She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily 1.'
Usha Seejarim presents Angel of the house, her second solo exhibition with SMAC Gallery.
'She was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathise always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all, I need not say it, she was pure.2'
The obedient angel of the house. Maintaining familial peace and order. Humble. Sinless. Patient. Reverent and joyful–flying and serving. Flying and serving.
Told through iron casts, steel plates, wire, pegs and broom heads, Seejarim's Angel of the house is a complicated story of womanhood–the selfless, sacrificial woman whose purpose is to serve, comfort and care, only to be disregarded and abused in a society that denies her social and economic equality. The exhibition examines feminine interiority from the vantage point of a phantom being, whose existence is conjured up through a society that places unbearable demands on its women. The angel of the house is an idealised version of the perfect woman, who knows and accepts her place in the world. This phantom figure continuously looms over the public imaginary.
Seejarim evokes Virginia Woolf (through her seminal speech-turned-essay Professions for Women (1931)) who in turn evokes Coventry Patmore's problematic yet culturally significant poem, Angel in the House. Woolf, of course, recognised the oppressive spectral presence in her own house, not only as of the external forces of patriarchy and misogyny but also as the internal thoughts and fears within herself, fuelled by attitudes of a hostile society. Through a layered invocation, Seejarim questions and problematises the conditions of existing as a woman in the world. Through the exhibition, womanhood implicates others–those that relate in joy, those that bring pain and those that depend on the woman for their survival.
Angel of the House furthers Seejarim's interest in concepts of gendered labour where she reinterprets everyday tools and objects as a means of exploring rituals of domesticity. The element of play and experimentation often found in her practice, courses through the exhibition at varying moments, particularly with the wire works depicting various versions of the family (e.g children at play) as well as through colourful mosaics offering a moment's reprieve through a merging of colour and form. The mosaics offer us a view into the fullness of Seejarim's practice, which functions both inside and outside the white cube, through modalities that allow her to engage public artworks and community based public art projects.
The image of flight is evoked through a set of plates - reclaimed ironing bases, assembled as wings. Wings of comfort. Wings of protection. Wings as a liberating force....because when the land becomes unbearable, women find ways to lift themselves off the ground. In 'Earthway: a poetry of crossings', writer and poet Canisia Lubrin offers us winged things in the context of ruin, noting, 'We ensconce ourselves in winged things. A midday shadow spills ruined cities at our feet. Lobs their printed heads at the graphite crowns.' And similarly, in another instance, Seejarim's Halo 2 (2021) made from steel iron bases, speaks of possible crownings. Crowns as an antidote to oppression. Crowns as resistance. As celebration.
Seejarim's nest made out of broom heads is a site-specific gesture through which she unearths and makes women's work visible. The broom carries totemic significance—as a tool that symbolises domestic work but also as a tool that hails to the image of the powerful witches the artist has previously engaged–through this gesture, care, vulnerability and danger are placed in the same conversation.
Woolf's angel is symbolic, and she succeeds in killing it, she confesses; 'I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her' but in through that process are questions of what to do with the body....the dead body but more importantly, one's own body–'The first [challenge], killing the Angel in the House, I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved.' Seejarim is attentive to the politics of 'experiences as a body', particularly the heavy burden of navigating life through a gendered body. The fraught relationship with the body is evident in the video; Wash Cycle (2020) in which residues of pain and violence are revealed through time. The gendered body is tainted and marked by violence. The gendered body is made vulnerable and pain is inevitable.
Angels are symbolic and allegorical but they are also very real–existing in various forms. Sometimes to guard and to protect and sometimes to oppress. Angel of the house draws on these parables to bring to fore the salient experiences of womanhood.
~1 ~An extract from Virginia Woolf's posthumously published essay Professions for Women, which is a truncated speech by Woolf delivered before the branch of the National Society for Women's Service in 1931.
Press release courtesy SMAC Gallery. Text: Nkgopoleng Moloi.