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The dangerous sentimentality of Alice Mann’s ‘Domestic Bliss’

A photographic series by a white employer on her domestic worker was always going to be problematic, but I didn’t know how problematic until I was presented with Alice Mann’s Domestic Bliss.

In her artist statement she says:

“This series of portraits depicts black, female domestic workers in the homes of their white employers in Cape Town’s more wealthy ‘southern suburbs’. All of these women are low-income workers who would be classified as previously disadvantaged as a result of South Africa’s apartheid laws.”

Let’s begin by calling a spade a shovel. These women are not previously disadvantaged, they are currently oppressed in wealthy, suburban homes as they were oppressed during apartheid, which Mann says little of. And some are oppressed in black homes by black employers, but I’ll get to that another day. First things first. The very nature of domestic work is that it is hidden from the public, often performed in private homes, away from public scrutiny. In this instant, then, we are almost compelled to take the word of the artist on the prevailing conditions of such an arrangement. With the subjects of her work mute in their uniforms, we must further accept the artist’s narrative about these woman’s lives at work as she has the foremost insight into their work environment as the “madam”, “friend” and the voice or, in this case, the eye that captures the “pride and individuality” these women have in domestic work or what she terms “domestic bliss”.

Her insight can only be contested by the maids themselves but conveniently they are the willing subjects who pose for her, silently. I will return to this silence at a later stage. I don’t find the work difficult at all, I must say, as some commentators have opined. I live in Cape Town and I have white friends who do this exact thing nearly every time they attempt to represent the narratives of their black subjects. With Mann’s work as with any liberal, white artist’s work from Cape Town, which goes down this unfortunate road, I always find the approach dishonest and unconvincing. But what sets her work apart with distinction is that it’s also empty and appallingly lazy. I will not argue whether this is art. Of course it’s art. What isn’t art these days? But it’s bad art and here’s why.

Bad art is always dishonest in its premise and this one also fails in its execution. Mann attended UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art but doesn’t seem to grasp subjectivity and representation as presiding texts in her work. A white woman, who is also the employer by extension of being a “klein baas”, the source of all the woes of the maid, cannot, in the same breath, be the saviour — at least not convincingly. Without interrogating, honestly, the very nature of her relationship with her subject — the maids — we’re left with a faux-sentimentality of a liberal, white artist attempting to assuage her own guilt while legitimising her privilege as a credible mitigating factor to an otherwise dismal fate of the (unemployed) black woman.

Unless the work was in fact an insight into the dominant narrative in white, suburban homes about the black maid, specifically, and blacks in general, it loses all credibility. I will venture to say that the work betrays the anxiety and fear of white suburbia about black women, black maids in particular. In her artist statement she claims that “[She] chose to photograph these women in their uniforms as [she] felt they serve as a constant visual marker of their particular existence within somebody else’s home (author’s emphasis: her and her friend’s homes) and the defined purpose of their presence in that space”. Convincing, right? Well, whether these women were in uniform or not, the visual marker of their “particular existence within [a white person’s] [wealthy] home and the defined purpose of their presence in that space” is signified by their blackness. Unless the artist knows of any white domestic workers in the “wealthy southern suburbs” I find it unnecessary to re-edify the fact of their existence in these spaces. It is this blackness that is useful to the artist. When not washing the dishes or doing the garden it is subject to her lens and becomes the surface on which she inscribes her text.

There exists no ambiguity in this regard, as she claims in her artist statement, only multiple subjectivities. The physical subjectivity of the maid as a cleaner in Mann’s home; the subjectivity of being literally the subject of Mann’s oppressive work. And lastly, and more perversely, being the subject of Mann’s guilt as a “madam” and being the subject of her attempt at redemption. The only indication that these women have any agency is “[r]eflected by small personalised details to their everyday uniforms — such as intricately braided hair”.

But of course this is what Mann would like us to believe. However I argue that their agency lies buried in their silences, their endurance of the condition in which they find themselves in a free society, where they clean after the likes of Mann, while Mann goes about the business of being an aspiring artist. This is not an involuntary agency, but the only logical agency to the cultural materialism that has been forced onto their existence, our existence, by centuries of colonialism and oppression, which persists till this very day.

It is this agency that the artist would like to deracinate from her work. An agency she teases with “intricately braided hair”. It is the fear of this innate agency that compels the artist to frame these women as happy subjects of the wealthy, proud in the garments of neo-slavery, at home within the confines of white households and forever grateful to have the task of cleaning. In the images the ever-present white gaze relentlessly hovers above them like a halo. Poses, which are meant to be languid and sedentary (the artist’s intended reading of the work), appear awkward and forced. While some of her subjects look satisfactorily at ease in performing “casual-yet-comfortably-sexy” for our photographer, others refuse to return her gaze. You find a menacing stare instead of a welcoming look. A defiance marked by traces of silent rage that the artist wasn’t able to decipher in her work even after the fact.

By the way, this entire project says nothing of the women in the pictures but more about the photographer behind the camera. The artist claims to be “captur[ing] an ambiguity in [her] subjects — the point of intersection between their job, which defines them as low-income domestic workers, and their own pride and individuality”. What she means to say is that she is attempting to humanise herself by feigning an interest, empathy, perhaps, in her subjects. And she fails dismally.

And I argue that in the broader post-apartheid situation many whites find themselves in this predicament. Their privilege having been accrued on the perpetual servitude of blacks to whites. Their humanity deliberately self-exorcised through 350 years of violent colonial rule, and later, the genocide that was apartheid, which bequeath them their cosy, middle-class suburban lives. It is much more difficult to go back to one’s humanity, for this requires one to be rid of one’s inhumanity. And for most South African whites, this inhumanity is tied to their privilege. And to truly attempt to attain the humanity they have lost they would have to risk losing their privilege. So then we find the likes of Mann, encumbered by their white guilt (not necessarily haunted by it) trying to navigate their way out of this mess.

In her interview with 10and5, Mann says: “Having grown up in Cape Town I became used to the presence of a domestic worker around my house, and the homes of my friends. My own relationship with the woman who works in my family household was a prominent influence for creating this series, and I took many portraits of her during the early stages of the project.”

What does she mean she became used to the presence of a domestic worker in her house? Was there some point that there was no black domestic worker in her house? Did this “presence” only appear with the rising unemployment of the recent years in South Africa as purported in her interview, hence she had to get used to it? Mann’s disingenuity is further exposed by her statement that “the woman … works in my household”. No. The woman works for your household. And as such, you might have to accept that she hates her boss, that she hates you and your entire family even as she poses for you to take your pictures. This is an assumption I make comfortably since many people hate the people they work for. In this regard I can even confidently say, she probably wants to be your boss and cannot wait for the day this happens.

Now that this particular photographic series has failed to conceal the tension between the domestic master-slave narratives by painting it a “domestic bliss” I will conclude by attempting to map out the anatomy of this silence I speak of. In Mary Sibande’s award-winning work The Purple Shall Govern her subject and alter-ego, Sophie, is also a domestic worker. Typically clad in a maid’s outfit, which denotes her role as a servant to the households of the rich. But Sibande attends to the innate desires of her subject. Sophie is in constant change and evolution. At one point she is a queen, at another a horse-rider, a superwoman and so forth. Later on, in a dramatic twist, Sophie is stripped of the white apron and bonnet, which symbolise her servitude.

These desires and ambitions are not attended to in Mann’s work although her lofty artist statement alludes as much. This is not the failure of the artist per se, but the failure of her entire worldview, her entire culture, which cannot imagine the maid as having any such ambitions despite their universality. And as far as it can imagine it, it panics and attempts to force it back into the box by framing the maid as a happy subject without any sense of agency.