Installation view of “Transgressing Power,” SMAC Gallery, 2019, with works from the “Cast Iron” series. Photo: Courtesy SMAC Gallery

Domestic Tensions: A Conversation with Usha Seejarim

Usha Seejarim works with ordinary, domestic objects in a somewhat Dadaist way, reinterpreting them into sculptural forms rooted in today’s South Africa but with broader resonance. Her materials include such staples of female labor as clothes pegs, irons, brooms, cleaning sponges, and serving trays. Repetitive acts are part of her process, responding to daily household rituals. Her forms are unexpected and poetic, raising questions of subservience as well as liberation. In her recent solo exhibition at Rotterdam’s Kunstinstituut Melly, Seejarim, who lives and works in Johannesburg, explored the ancient symbol of the fish (the Vesica Piscis), using it as sign of womanhood to address historical biases and as a bridge between ideas and identities, where intersection allows for fluidity and transformation.

Installation view of “Usha Seejarim,” Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam, 2020–21. Photo: Kristien Daem, Courtesy Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam

Robert Preece: What is the context for your works made from the tools of domestic housework? Are you interested in universal connotations or more specific references?
Usha Seejarim: The domestic objects in my work are, for me, somewhat metaphorical; I think about their function. For example, the clothes iron smooths out creases; its function is to make a shirt or other item of clothing neat and presentable. The clothes peg holds, clasps, grips, and embraces; the broom sweeps away dirt and clears a space. I am aware of how these objects and their use are associated with a female role. Thus, they become quite genderized. I have come to recognize the particular triangular shape of the iron and how that shape has a feminist/vaginal reference. So, the works do not refer to a specific context as much as they refer to the notion of domestic roles and how they are—historically, culturally, socially—assigned to or claimed by the female. I would like to think of these forms as universal symbols understood around the world.

There is moment that stands out for me, which may help to illustrate this. Last year, during the Ostrale Biennale in Dresden, Germany, I was giving a tour to a group of refugee women from a number of countries, including Poland, Syria, and Uzbekistan. We were looking at Herd, an installation that expands on my earlier work Cow’s head (2009). Herd consists of 39 “cow heads,” each one an assemblage of an iron and a clothes hanger. Most of the women did not speak English, so translators relayed my words in several different languages. At one point, a woman stepped forward and removed one of the heads from the wall to see how the iron and the hanger were joined, at which point the curators rushed to stop her. But I didn’t mind if she examined the work, and several other women joined in the discussion. They marveled at the simplicity of the work and connected to the installation by virtue of the objects, which they could relate to.

Although not deliberately referenced, it is inevitable that I am influenced by my context as a South African woman of South Asian descent. My cultural upbringing was conservative, particularly in the prescriptive gender roles of the home. Hired domestic help is a prevalent phenomenon in South Africa. Historically, it was a marker of race and privilege, and currently it is an indication of race and class, mixed with gender; Black women are hired as domestic workers in the house, and Black men are hired as gardeners. Many of the brooms in Triangle (2012) were used predominantly by female domestic workers and donated by their employers.

RP: Do you see these domestic objects and forms as symbols of subservience, as well as a kind of liberation? 
US: Yes, there is a constant tension between the two. In fact, I would say that my work uses these objects to express a desire for freedom, a longing for independence, while the very same objects stymie that yearning. In Her Latent Power Lies Dormant (2019), her power, her liberation, is untapped and unrealized. The “Servitude” series (2019/2020) speaks quite directly to notions of subservience with serving trays that have been layered and cut through to make vagina-like forms. The idea of serving has multiple readings. I find the process of working in multiples oddly liberating. For me, that liberation comes in the meditative process of repetition; and for the object, it lies in the comfort of the multiple and the ability to create new form through it, as in Twisted Lobe (2020) and Sometimes I Get My Knickers in a Knot (2015).

Servitude V, X, IV, I, VII, II, and III, 2020. Found objects and serving trays, dimensions variable. Photo: Kristien Daem, Courtesy Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam

RP: Which materials do you prefer to work with, and why? Are there any that have proved difficult?
US: I love working with found objects. In some cases, brooms, irons, and mops are donated to me, or I pick them up at the dump. I am acutely aware of their resonance. Their specific histories are not important to me, yet their individual energy is apparent, charged with a personal and collective narrative, and this guides the work.

When I first started to work with the wooden pegs, it was incredibly frustrating because they seemed to have a mind of their own. I would bind them together, create a form, and then, one or two of them would simply snap at the hinge and come undone at the spring. Working with them is labor intensive, and it became quite torturous when I would hear the “snap.” It was almost like a power struggle, a defiant test of resilience. For a long time, I tried to force the pegs into the shapes that I wanted, and I failed. It took me a while to realize that I had to change my approach. I learned to converse with the material, becoming aware of its properties, understanding what it does not like to do and what it is capable of doing, and how I could push that. One might say that I adopted a more intuitive process, and this has guided how I work with other materials as well.

Steel may not be an apparent material in my work, but it is often the armature of specific pieces. I love working with steel. I find it versatile, strong, flexible, and resilient—we seem to converse easily. In theCast Iron” series (2018), I purposely skirted the rules of cement mixing and casting to make imperfect casts of the iron. These weren’t originally made as completed works; I was merely experimenting.

RP: Could you talk about your process? Do you have a general, standardized approach, or does it vary? 
US: It varies. Generally, I get an idea. This could come through something that I read, or heard, or saw. I don’t find it necessary to write or sketch because the image plays in my mind repeatedly, becoming clearer and clearer. These thoughts can be quite persistent, and I then respond by making. Other times, I have a clear concept, make sketches, and then find the best way to make it, which may mean consulting others. I have learned to move away from rigid fixation on the form and to “play” with the materials until I arrive at the feeling of the work. Often through the making/playing/resolving/searching process of one piece, ideas come for other works.

Some pieces take a long time to resolve; almost finished works can sit in my studio for months or even years, and then, when I least expect it, the solution presents itself. In Cornucopia (2020), for instance, I had threaded all the segmented broom pieces onto the wire and created a long, trumpet-like form on the table. From the beginning, I had a feeling to fold the shape but I ignored this nudge, because I was attached to the idea of having a long shape. For months, I tried various things like bending sections, making spaces between the “beads,” adding other elements. A few months later, while working on other pieces, I walked past this work and thought, “Let’s try folding it over and see what happens.” And, of course, it worked perfectly.

Three sisters in law (2012), on the other hand, took 10 minutes to make. I had a pile of brooms and a box of bangles next to each other. While having an informal conversation with a friend in the studio, I held three brooms together and started slotting bangles around them, without intending to make a finished work. When I got almost to the top of the broom handles, I stepped back and said, “Hmm, there is something here.” The concept usually develops simultaneously with the work, and sometimes the titles are equally clear. 

Cornucopia, 2020. Wooden broom sticks and wire, 100 x 170 x 49 cm. Photo: Courtesy Thys Dullaart

RP: When did you start using domestic objects, and what were you doing before? What is the attraction that keeps you working in this way?
US: I have always been fascinated by the ordinary and the mundane. In my early works, I collected bus tickets for a few years from a daily commute between Lenasia and Johannesburg and used them to make a series of works. I also collected Kwik Loks—the small plastic tags used to close bread packets—and made two-dimensional and sculptural works with them. I was also intrigued by the daily ritual of brushing one’s teeth and made video pieces.

At some point, I started working with domestic objects. At the time, I didn’t notice or understand the reason why. In retrospect, I realize that it was when I had become a mother. Perhaps, as a woman surrounded by the daily rituals of household activities, it was inevitable that I would go there. What keeps me there, I don’t know. I feel like I am only scratching the surface and there is much more to uncover. It is a process of revelation, and I am committed to that. What has continued from the early work is the method of collecting materials, working in multiples, and using ordinary objects. I doubt that this will change. It has become a language that I am starting to understand and communicate through.

RP: What do you consider to be your artistic influences? 
US: I have definitely been influenced by Duchamp, assemblage art, Dadaism, simplicity of form, and the use of found objects. Gabriel Orozco and Romuald Hazoumè blow my mind. I love Orozco’s sense of humor in Cats and Watermelons (1992). One of my favorite pieces is Extension of reflection (1992), where he rode his bicycle through a puddle and photographed the water marks made by the tires. I often notice these kinds of moments; for a while, I documented them and called them “An extended moment of Ordinaryness.” And, of course Hazoumè’s masks are brilliant. He makes it look so wonderfully obvious. I have responded to several iconic artworks and movements—not intentionally but because the opportunities came up while working with the materials. Cow’s head is a response to Picasso’s Bull’s Head (1942), and Dishwashing delight (2015) is a play on Modernism and Mondrian.

The contemporary South African artists Igshaan Adams and Bronwyn Katz inspire me tremendously. They both have, in different ways, the right mix of formal simplicity, conceptual complexity, and aesthetic beauty. When my work has this sense of configuration, I know it’s working. Both of these artists seem to do it effortlessly.

Dishwashing delight, 2015. Scouring pads on board, 120 x 150 cm. Photo: Courtesy Paul Mills

RP: Has South Africa’s political culture influenced you?
US: I have been molded by my context. I experienced Apartheid as a child and saw the release of Nelson Mandela as a teenager. I think that people outside of South Africa don’t realize just how fucked up institutional racism is. The legacy of Apartheid has left us South Africans with a distorted sense of what is normal. Currently our economic divide is among the highest in the world, tainted, of course, by race; and the plight of the vulnerable becomes more and more urgent, exacerbated by Covid and lockdown. 

RP: What would you like viewers to know about your work, or about specific works?
US: There are some interesting things. In theServitude” series, I became aware of the violence enacted on the materials—cutting, grinding, filing—during the making of the pieces. I made Her Latent Power Lies Dormant four times before it was resolved conceptually and structurally. The works with segments of broom pieces like Cornucopia and The Conference of the Brooms (2019) have a mix of used broom handles and new ones, and I struggled to get variation of tone when I couldn’t find enough used ones. Security Blanket (2018) was bought by a collector couple and currently sits in a man cave alongside vintage cars. The title for Male Guilt (2016) came because of how men commonly responded to the image. Domestic disagreement (2015) was one of the first peg pieces that I made, and it is interesting that I used this difficult medium to describe a relationship with the process of making. The irons as well as the plugs are stitched in United by Stitches (2012). I have a huge desire to continue making works like Dishwashing delight, but I haven’t found a way to stop the sponges from fading—and I’m not yet ready to accept the fading color as part of the nature of the work. 

Her Latent Power Lies Dormant, 2019. Grass brooms and wire, 196 x 127 x 53 cm. Photo: Courtesy SMAC Gallery

RP: What are your future plans? 
US: I have been straddling several strands of art-making—social practice, public art, and studio work—and I would like to bring them together, cohesively and logically and effortlessly. I have many dreams for the future, but mostly I look forward to making a meaningful impact.