Writing Art History Since 2002

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The overwhelming strength of A Room of Her Own, a collaboration between Leora Farber and fashion designers Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater of Strangelove, is its closely honed attention to detail, which evokes metonyms and simulacra evocative of the South African condition. The work is a prism into the dynamics of immigration to Africa for a Jewish woman in the late nineteenth century. In its gesture, its setting, its use of light and heat, the work is polished to astonishing simplicity; the beauty it offers is also beguiling in the complex narratives it evokes.In the work, sensory elements are layered. Sounds, ranging from readings from diaries of Bertha Marks, wife of entrepreneur Sammy Marks, overlap with the sounds of flowing water. Chamber music also features in this auditory background, as well as a 1970 broadcast by former prime minister BJ Vorster and memories of immigrating to South Africa from Eastern Europe by Freda Farber. This layered sound doesn’t busy up the reading of the work; it offers elaborate insight through which an understanding of the South African discourse from a Jewish aspect is evoked, replete with contradictions and ambiguities.The work is metonymic in its stasis. Perfectly formed wax roses on the wallpaper integrate with the notion of a Victorian interior. As the work unfolds, the light is designed to cause the flowers to melt, and like lumps of bloody flesh, they dismantle themselves and crash to the ground, leaving a detritus of red-stained streaks. Farber is metonymic for Bertha Guttmann, a Jewess brought to South Africa from England, to enter into an arranged marriage with Sammy Marks. She sits and embroiders.Embroidery has come to reflect critically on feminist discourse; in this work, Farber engages also with the idea of grafting plants. This gives the work a frisson of abjection, its feminist approach an edge: Farber seems to be embroidering aloe leaves directly into the flesh of her thigh, exposed through her otherwise Victorian-appropriate skirt. The act is structured, not brutal. The illusion of self-mutilation is overwhelmingly present yet denied by the work’s tone.This grafting of values is a subtle, yet violent extrapolation on the notion of immigration between cultures. Central to the work, it offers a developed understanding of the position of white culture in Africa, and the pain and difficulty in such a replanting of values.On a level, A Room of Her Own parodies Virginia Woolf’s famous essay. The feminist stance is enriched by its reference to the naked and brutal African terrain. In using her biographical roots to explore her relationship to and identification with South African colonial history and identity construction within it, Farber, in collaboration with Strangelove, offers a provocative and meaningfully broad reading of South African identity.

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