Sculpting resistance

Emerging sculptor Fathema Bemath’s star is on the rise.

Sculpture artist Fathema Bemath has always been creative. She’s also always been the black sheep of her family; constantly questioning the status quo in a strictly conservative Muslim environment where women were (and still largely are) expected to toe the patriarchal line. It was her high school’s new art centre in Lenasia that awoke the artist inside her, and seeded a passion that she started nurturing again only later in life.  

A conservative upbringing 

“I come from a ridiculously conservative family. Muslim, Indian, South African third generation. And my dad was of that mindset that girls shouldn’t be educated,” Bemath tells us as she describes her childhood and the template of domesticity that she was expected to fit into. “There were no options for me. When you’re in your parent’s care and you’re that age, and you’re raised in that community with those belief systems, there’s no platform to challenge it.” 

 It was a plea from her uncle that led to her parents allowing her to pursue an ‘acceptable’ career as a dental technician at what was then Wits Technicon. This was in the early years of South Africa’s fledgling democracy, so Bemath was expected to write a letter explaining why she wanted to attend a white institution of learning. She was the only woman in her graduating class. 

“I really like clay. It’s mud. It’s earth. It’s the very essence of the world,”

Fathema Bemath

Clay modelling talent

Having successfully launched her dental practice while also raising a family, she tried her hand at a few sculpture classes in 2019, and was immediately hooked.

“I really like clay. It’s mud. It’s earth. It’s the very essence of the world,” she says. 

The closure of her dental laboratory during the height of the pandemic meant that she could take some time to hone her clay modelling talent and teach herself the basics of human anatomy. “I wanted to challenge the particular type of femininity that’s found in a museum. Women are always very objectified. It’s very reductionist.” 

Bemath tells me that it’s a passion for the battles that women like her and others have to fight on a daily basis that gives form and articulation to her work. “The everyday woman and the struggles she goes through, are not highlighted. They are not celebrated. The everyday hurdles that women face need to be acknowledged and celebrated.”  

Her sculptures are responses to and embodiments of the complex politics of being a female in a world dominated by men. Her busts use clay modelling techniques to physically inscribe the texture of these politics onto their surfaces. They are vibrant, animated and full of pulsing feminine life and it’s a remarkable testimony to Bemath’s talent that she can use sculpting clay to evoke such complex layers of emotion. She’s deeply interested in feminine histories and the stories of the ‘other’ that are sometimes relegated to the margins of history books, or erased entirely due to the destructive effects of colonialism. Her free standing sculpture works speak to these narratives. “These stories aren’t told. And they should be.” 

Dentistry and artistry 

That she somehow manages to maintain her burgeoning artistic career, while also running her dental practice and keeping her family sheltered during a pandemic that has seen healthcare workers at the coalface of COVID-19 related traumas is testimony to her talent. Bemath thinks that being open to constant learning and change are the most important parts of life. “My children are my greatest educators. They challenge my norms, values and traditions. I think that’s important for growth.”  

Bemath is currently practising at the August House art collective in Johannesburg, and was recently shortlisted as a top 20 finalist in the Thami Mnyele Fine Art Award. You’ll be able to see her work at this year’s upcoming Turbine Art Fair in July, and she is involved in talks to profile her work at many exhibitions during the coming months. Follow her on Instagram @fathemabemath.

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