Lorna Mills and Sally McKay
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Steven Cohen's video Maid in South Africa is one of the most challenging artworks I've seen. The artist filmed his old nanny, now 84, cleaning his parents' house in South Africa. The house is run down and dingey. There are no appliances, and she washes the clothes in the bathtub. In South Africa, apparently, even lower middle class white people have a maid that they keep employed for a lifetime. Cohen's camerm follows Nomsa around while she does her regular chores. For the shoot, Nomsa is dressed (or, rather, undressed) in the heels, garters and dangling purple nipple covers of a draq queen/stripper. She is deadpan-serious about the whole thing, except for a brief shot where she chuckles at herself in the mirror, and the end, where she laughs gleefully, some kind of disco light flashing from behind her teeth. Cohen, while seemingly quite tender toward Nomsa, is merciless to his audience, and delivers the debasement of this woman he cares about with unrelenting shots of her cleaning the filthy toilet, crawling on the carpet to sweep up cigarette butts, etc.
I watched the video at V-Tape and was lucky enough to have the screening room to myself. I was extremely uncomfortable. I squirmed and kept telling myself "it's just a video." I was glad I didn't have to take other audience reaction into account, as I was having enough trouble dealing with my own. Of course it isn't "just a video." It's a portrait of exploitation that is very real indeed.
Steven Cohen is the same artist who did the stunning performance, in which he converted a chandelier into an over-the-top glam outfit and wore it, with high heels, into a shanty town in Johannesburg as it was being destroyed (Chandelier, 2001-02).
Nomsa raised Steven Cohen. The race dynamics, the power dynamics, the transgressive drag dynamics and the artist/subject dynamics of the video are further complicated by oedipal dynamics. It's all pretty potent. The piece is an indictment of oppression in South African, but it is an intimate tale told from within the loop of the artist's own family experience, embedded in that oppression. As Cohen pointed out in an interview with Lisa Steele (also available at V-Tape), the piece is truly a South African work, and may be hard for audiences in other cultures to fully grasp. At the same time, Cohen is making no excuses, and is fully aware that the video is challenging and extremely hard to watch.
Nomsa herself is fantastic and delivers an unflappable performance. She works away at the dishes, the ironing, the sweeping up with studious absorption. In the interview Cohen describes her delight with the final video, and said that she was keen on showing it to everyone she knew, sometimes, said Cohen, inappropriately. Which is a strange thing to say, considering that I and many others, total strangers on other continents, have born witness to this collaborative enactment of dignity in the face of exploitation.
Steven Cohen's Maid in South Africa is part of the Images Festival, and can be seen at V-Tape until May 10th.