Amita Makan | | Art in South Africa
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Trans-Africa: Africa curating Africa

Exhibition curated by Jane Crawshay-Hall, ABSA Gallery, May 2013.


Photographs by Rupert de Beer

Some are transformed just once
And live their whole lives after in that shape.
Others have a facility
For changing themselves as they please.
From Ted Hughes, Tales From Ovid

Governments define identity by one’s face and fingerprints.

I have prepared two self-portraits for the Trans Africa exhibition, one of which has my own fingerprints. These portraits are a reflection of my non-singular identity as a South African of Indian heritage in Africa in a post-colonial, post-apartheid and globalized world.

I explore my identity through the ‘intersecting histories’ of South Africa, India and Europe. Both works are embroidered with the ancient Indian garment, the ‘sari’, which has been worn by Indian women for over 5000 years. The vintage saris I use belong to my late mother. The sari, integral to the Indian culture, is a metaphor of my Indian identity.

My ancestors come from the Indian state of Gujarat and were from the so-called ‘Mochi’, or shoemaker caste. My great grandfather and grandfather were cobblers. The women of Gujarat are celebrated for their embroidery skills. I draw on this ancestry by weaving my identity with stitching and saris on diaphanous, silk organza and ‘tulle’; a net material. The medium expresses the concept of ‘Maya’ that in Hindu philosophy means ‘illusion’. Maya suggests that what one sees is true in itself but untrue in comparison to the absolute truth, and encourages one to look beyond the veil of illusion to find the true self.

The ubiquitous sequins are ‘mirror-like’ and allude to self-reflexivity, dream-like states and illusion. The medium of organza and tulle can be likened to the porous nature of identity and the constant absorption of influences in an osmotic manner. The tightly twined silk embroidery thread represents the double helix of my DNA; one strand represents my ancestry, the other my individuality[1].

In the first work, ‘Self Portrait’, my face is pieced together from a mosaic of vintage saris with ancestral stitches to ‘pin down’ and capture my Self on the fragile tulle. A fragmented and multifaceted self with an Indian face emerges. I further pierce the ‘veil’ of my Indian identity to find the absolute. The ‘reverse’ is nuanced, somewhat abstract, and reflects an identity in flux, undergoing metamorphosis. I am surrounded by an array of appropriated western shoes, notably stilettos. These are a metaphor my ancestral and my own journey, and reflect notions of caste, gender, class, migration, modernity, globalization and freedom.

The second work, ‘Self Portrait: After Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bauer Bloch I, 1907’ also explores the notion of ‘intersecting histories’. The Austrian born painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) himself was influenced by other cultures. I superimpose my portrait over Adele Bloch Bauer using embroidery. Fragments of vintage saris, integral to my ancestral identity, now inspired by Klimt, are re-patterned.

Klimt painted ‘Adele Bloch Bauer I’ in 1907, a significant year in the history of South Africa. 1907 marked the beginning of Satyagraha, non-violent resistance by Indian people, lead by Mahatma Gandhi, against the Black Act. The Act included the mandatory finger printing of Indians to control and inhibit their movement. Physical appearance and fingerprints underpinned the discrimination that was formally institutionalized under apartheid. In this self portrait, I revisit the history of fingerprinting. The gold fingerprints allude to the collective South African memory. In the 21st century facial profiling and fingerprints are used to control migration and counter terrorism.


[1] Ronnberg, A, The Book of Symbols Reflections on Archetypal Symbols, Taschen, 2010, page 516.

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