Tracey Rose – Contributing to History

MAQUEII 2002. Photo: Courtesy Goodman Gallery
MAQUEII 2002. Photo: Courtesy Goodman Gallery

It’s not every artist who is brave and committed enough to shave her entire body and make an art piece with the hair while filming using surveillance cameras, Introducing Tracey Rose.

Tracey Rose explores the various cultural stereotypes imposed on African women and also on African’s and women, looking at femininity, sexuality as a basis to challenge and inform, Rose is a living and breathing artwork sometimes absurd and chaotic but always relevant.

Rose represents her version of South Africa in a piece called Ciao Bella at the 2001 Venice Biennale. The work features photographs and video pieces of Rose dressed as a nun, mermaid and Marie Antoinette, making the viewer see an unrealistic interpretation of womanhood.

Early Life 

Rose was born in Durban in South Africa in 1974, only a year earlier in 1973 the Durban Strikes started a process that would bring down the Apartheid regime in 1994 created a backdrop to the oppression and extreme living conditions that Rose would have experienced growing up.

Tracey Rose. Photo:

Rose attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study Fine Arts obtaining her bachelor of arts (BA) in 1996. Returning to teach at the university and then at Vaal Triangle Technikon, Vanderbijl Park, South Africa until 2001.

Rose took up the position of artist-in-residence in Cape Town at the South African National Gallery, and it was here she developed her work for the Venice Biennale 2001. 

Becoming a Contemporary Abstract Artists

Starting with an interpretation of the famous Rodin sculpture ‘The Thinker’ – the black and gold sculpture sat alongside a script used in a family argument.

The piece that defines Rose as a contemporary abstract artist is Ongetiteld. A video made using surveillance cameras – she shaves off all of her body hair. Rose presented this work in 1998 to the Democracy’s Images, Bildmuseet in Umeå in Sweden.

TKO – 2000 is a piece shown while in residency at ArtPace Institute in San Antonio, Texas. Rose is naked and using a punching bag; she boxes with increasing vigour and pace while being recorded by four surveillance cameras. The use of cameras suggests voyeurism implicates the viewer to become involved as Rose presents as both victim and aggressor. 

Span I and Span II, 1997. First conceived 1997 and later presented at the Dakar Biennale in 2000. Span II – here we see Rose, side-on, head shaved and naked using her body hair to portray an anti femininity stance. 

As part of the 2001 Venice Biennale, Rose appears in Lolita 2001 as a horrific portrayal of a 12-year-old girl, the book Lolita was written in 1955 by Vladimir Nabokov. In the photograph created by Rose, we see a woman dressed as a young girl in a red dress wearing red shoes and frilly ankle socks sitting on the bonnet of a red truck; her skin whitewashed for grim effect. 

The image is more late-night horror than the storybook. Rose is highlighting the sexualisation of children; these days, Nabokov would be considered a paedophile with an unhealthy attraction to young women.

One of the most famous pieces is The Kiss – this is a photo of an unnamed black man and Rose both naked and sitting like a sculpture. The man is seated, Rose is lying across him with her arms and legs dangling as if in rapture, addressing the concept of race and colour against a background of masculinity and perceived beauty. The work offers populist appeal and a comment that is predominantly about love – or at least that’s what we hope.

Contributing to History

So how does this artwork contribute to history and specifically the history of South Africa, Africans and African women?

The Black Sun Black Star and Moon, 2014. Photo:

In the artist statement to Sue Williamson, Rose says “Making work is a documentation of a journey – each stage, each process, each dilemma has to be worked through. At one time, I felt pressured to do a lot of things at the same time, but now I want to take one step at a time. When you make an artwork you’re not just doing something at that moment; you’re contributing to an entire history of artmaking.”

There’s little doubt Rose has been influenced by Cindy Sherman – Sherman also comments through photography on the construction of contemporary identity and just like Rose the art is documentation and comment on femininity and the perception of womanhood.

Rose takes this concept further and more profound and probes into more intense performance art territory, giving to us the film The Prelude – The Garden path. Rose is semi-naked riding a donkey in a forest or overgrown jungle area with a paper mache hat that looks like a penis. One commentator just says “so strange”, yes it is!

If you want to understand the artist watch the 2010 YouTube clip called Global Feminisms: Tracey Rose – but then again don’t as that will just be history repeating itself.

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