Iziko presents Under Cover of Darkness: Women in servitude


Under Cover of Darkness is a collaborative endeavour between Iziko Museums of South Africa and the University of Cape Town. It opens at the Iziko Slave Lodge on the 25 September 2018. The exhibition opening is timed to coincide with Heritage week and Iziko’s in_herit FESTIVAL which runs from 24 September to 29 September.

Iziko Museums of South Africa

The Under Cover of Darkness exhibition aims to highlight and pronounce questions relating to invisibility and submergence, absent or blurred narratives in history, the female body and slavery and colonial legacy on the contemporary landscape.  Three women, Susanna of Bengal, Krotoa and one unidentified woman, are a perfect alliance with the aim of this exhibition.  The challenge of the exhibition is to find a way to bring these women’s lives and indeed these histories out of darkness and connect to present day, providing a lens on a colonial legacy that plagues us to this day.

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ELEGY/ Noluvo Swelindawo 2017. Gabrielle Goliath. Performance, installation view, ICA Live Art Festival, Cape Town. To be staged in Under Cover of Darkness, ISL. Image courtesy of ICA
ELEGY/ Noluvo Swelindawo 2017. Gabrielle Goliath. Performance, installation view, ICA Live Art Festival,
Cape Town. To be staged in Under Cover of Darkness, ISL. Image courtesy of ICA

The lives of these women, and so many others passed unrecorded. Women under servitude were written about only when they intersected with the colonial project, most commonly as property bought or sold; when they broke colonial laws; when they were used for sex; or in the rare instance when a woman freed herself and became a property owner.

Through Susanna of Bengal we see the violence of the colony in her murder of a her child in the same way that we may connect to Ellen Pakkies or Toni Morrison’s character in ‘Beloved’ who slits the throats of her children rather than deliver them into slavery.  In the life of Krotoa there are many connections, her hybrid lifestyle slipping between her people and the colony, devoured by alcohol and framed in history as a drunk and often vilified for her colonial affiliation her own people. The unidentified woman is the brutality of the invisible, the unnamed and erasure of families, names, cultures and languages.   January, February March… is no enigma it is a blunt instrument and the Alibama still sails in on various flights into the mother city, to apply a particular gaze.

Although the exhibition uses these three women’s lives as central characters, it does include 9 other women besides, who were housed at the Slave Lodge. Among them there are women who lived and died under servitude; and those who managed to gain freedom. There are women who had documented lives; and those whose lives are unrecorded. There are women who were born in the Cape; and those who were stolen from other places:

  • Anna and Mariij van Madagasker – sold at a profit on auction
  • Ansela who became Engela – born a slave, died a slave owner
  • Armosyn Claasz – Slave Lodge matron who founded a dynasty
  • China renamed Rosa – from childhood sold five times
  • Dina van Rio de la Goa – escaped from slavery and re-captured
  • Krotoa – trapped between two worlds
  • Magdalena van Batavia – bought the freedom of her daughters
  • Marij van Macasser – wrenched from her culture and religion
  • Rosa van Bengalen – sold for refusing to obey
  • Susanna van Bengal – brutally sentenced and drowned
  • Zara van der Caab – tried and dishonoured after her suicide

Uncovering the stories of these women lays bare the distorted patterns of race, gender, land and labour that were set up in early colonial society and continued through Apartheid and continues today to plague us with issues of land, labour and legacy.  Contemporary works by performance artist Gabrielle Goliath and artist Azazole Ndamase give expression to the continuation of these patterns of inequality.

Iziko Museums of South Africa invites you to come and interact with Under the Cover of Darkness.  Iziko continues to collaborate on relevant issues in art and heritage, and provide spaces for contestation, conversation and reconciliation.  Welcome to your museums.

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