I first met Tracey Rose eleven years ago. I was researching the connections between healing and art in the work of contemporary artists from Africa. There was something in her art that spoke of the shaman, the alchemist, the revealer of wounds, the reorderer of worlds. From the beginning, I loved all the facets of her and of her work: the mischief and joy and delight of the girl; the boundless sensuality and wisdom of the woman; the vastness of spirit, placing her somewhere between this plane and another, channeling perpetually distant truths, some more gentle and others with more violent vibratory force. The starting point of the artist, born in Durban in 1974, seems to be her own naked subjectivity and at the same time its deconstruction. As seen in the early video work TKO (Technical Knockout) (2000), where she continuously boxes at a punching bag that holds the recording camera, the eye or I, both mirror and observer, battling the construct of self to what might lie underneath.
These acts of revelation, through stripping away or conversely through layering up, or further still exaggerating to the point of the carnivalesque, expand beyond the individual to the collective, often feminine, self. In the tableau piece Ciao Bella (2001), Rose embodies various caricatures of beauty, from porn star Cicciolina to the European Queen, invoking those forms of masking and masquerade that in their grotesque heightening of contour, of color, of symbolism, reveal an essence usually hidden. In turning upside down, and inside out, weighted mythologies of genesis, such as the inversion of biblical narratives in the photographic series “Lucie’s Fur” (2003–04), Adam and Eve become Adam and Yves, and Jesus becomes a gay South African woman; Rose effects a reordering of given realities. Again, those on the wrong side of history are honored and called into the present in The Black Paintings: Dead White Man (2012), where Tracey shouts the mantra “white” over and over again at placards bearing the names of Salvador Allende, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King, Patrice Lumumba, and others, disarming the seemingly harmless word of its insidious neutrality, bringing to the fore its power to dominate, suppress, and violate.
Rituals of revelation and rituals of reordering are what Rose offers: the uncovering and recalibration of histories of violence, of women’s often unspoken presence in these histories, and of the limits and limitlessness of language and of these tellings, and through all this, the healing of some of the ruptures of self.
—Nana Oforiatta Ayim