Vanitas Woe

Solo Exhibition
25 March - 6 May 2023

Exhibition Opening: Saturday 25 March 2023
Exhibition Closure: Saturday 6 May 2023

WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Vanitas Woe, a solo exhibition by Nabeeha Mohamed.


Forgive me, for I have been nurturing my well-worn
grudges against beauty. I am hoping  my neighbors

will show some mercy on me for backing my car into
the garden & crushing what I will say were the peonies.

a flower with a short season. born dying. some might say
it’s a blessing to know your entrances & exits. forgive me, for

I have once again been recklessly made responsible
for the curation of softness & have instead returned with another

torrent of viciousness. in the brief moment of their flourish,
at the opening of spring, I drove across state lines to gather peonies for a woman

who loved me once. as a way of surrender, I pull the already
dying thing from the earth in a mess of tangled knots & I insist

that you must keep it alive for a year, even after it so desperately
wants to be done with the foolishness of its living. The last thing

I ask of this relationship is to burden you with another relationship.
it is so delicious to define the misery you are putting a body out of.

& just like that, we are talking about power. ‘how awful this must be for you’
I whispered as I closed my eyes & put the car into reverse.

Hanif Abdurraqib


reaching, at times
Searching, yearning

I think these verbs, all somewhat synonymous, indicate a desire to make sense of things that feel contradictory, cannot be neatly packaged or clearly defined.” Shares artist Nabeeha Mohamed during our conversation about her latest body of work—and second solo exhibition with What If The World—Vanitas Woe, in response to a question about what the body of work is labouring to do and/or perform. 

Comprised of a series of sculptures, still life paintings and sculptural paintings, with scenes of flower arrangements as abstract self portraits, which feel as if they are coming alive—like clay in a stop motion animation film—awakening to escape and stretch their blossoming bodies beyond the borders of their canvassed worlds into new ones. Vanitas Woe sees Mohamed turning again towards the intimate and familiar space of home. The objects in her paintings are socially and culturally coded as symbols of femininity and materialisations of wealth and privilege. They exist  in an uneasy visual syntax that reveals the shifting, opaque and ambivalent conditions of identity within South Africa’s so called  post-apartheid state, where the past has not quite lost its grips and the future has not quite taken definite shape.

In The World and Home, Homi Bhabha speaks of the condition of unhomeliness as a paradigmatic post-colonial experience, and as a condition and anguish of displacement, where he theorises the “intimate recesses of the domestic space as a site of history’s most intricate invasions” (Bhabha, 1992: 141). In Mohamed’s Vanitas Woe, home is not simply a place but rather, it is an (ir)revocable condition—and the domestic space becomes a site/sight of interpellation—where bodies are formed and reformed, and identity is (de)constructed in visual and conceptual conversation with ideologies that permeate it. “I think of my still life pieces as playful contemporary vanitas paintings. The objects chosen—designer handbags and shoes, luxury watches—are familiar to my home and the homes I frequented as a child of wealth and privilege, more specifically they reference tropes of a particular  femininity .

In his poem, How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This, Hanif Abdurraqib describes Peonies as “a flower with a short season. born dying.” The conjured imagery brings to mind the title of Mohamed’s body of work, more specifically the “Vanitas” in Vanitas Woe. Vanitas refers to a still life artwork which includes in its compositional field various symbolic objects designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and futility of worldly goods and pleasures. It is also a term derived from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

“If we start close to home, we open ourselves out”. (Ahmed, 2017). In starting as close to home as possible, which is to say, starting inside the home itself, Mohamed opens herself up, muddling biographies of gendered constructions, and complicating her conflicting yet simultaneous inheritances of dispossession and privilege from the inside out. “Alongside these objects are drooping, withering flowers that symbolise the discomfort and tension I often feel being a recipient of this wealth. These domestic spaces symbolise a suburban world that although the only world I have ever experienced, can often feel alien and strange.”

A pink petal?
Or a drooping tongue?
Fanged Virgina Bluebells,
hissing and looming over grotesque green vines.
Strange arrangements of a body becoming undone.
“How can a flower inflame a wound?
It can and it does if it is a portal to the past.” (Deborah Levy).

Being made girl and woman, therefore having your subjectivity assembled in the socio-historical grammar of gendered construction, means coming to an awareness of yourself, and of your body, through the institutions and instructions dictated by patriarchy. The domestic space and home, as an organising institution, also exits within this matrix. In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes about feminism being sensational and about building feminist worlds animated by experiences of the everyday, “Becoming a girl is here about how you experience your body in relation to space. Gendering operates in how bodies take up space: think of the intense sociality of the subway or train, how some men typically lounge around, with their legs wide…Women might end up not even having much space, that space has been taken up. To become accommodating, we take up less space. The more accommodating we are, the less space we have to take up. Gender: a loop, tightening.” (Ahmed, 2017).

Sara Ahmed also expands on the idea of feminist work as memory work ,an embodied practice of reckoning with what has happened in order to make sense of it . “Feminist work is often memory work. We work to remember what sometimes we wish would, or could just recede. While thinking about what it means to live a feminist life, I have been remembering; trying to put the pieces together. I have been putting a sponge to the past. When I think of my method, I think of a sponge: a material that can absorb things. We hold it out and wait to see what gets mopped up.” Mohamed’s figurative self portraits, “Clown II” and “A Good Cry”—with clown-like anguished smiles fixed on their mask-like faces—evoke a feminist grappling much like Ahmed’s. Enclosed within a flat green background, the weeping downturned figure in “A Good Cry” feels caught within gender’s tightening loop: smile (always), avert all eye contact, bend your body into a polite abstraction and don’t you dare take-up any space! Perhaps this is why she weeps? The idea of contorting one’s body into a polite and pretty abstraction is also carried through in Mohamed’s sculptures for this body of work, in the form of the elongated and surreal high-heels. “The sculptures of high heels are made of cement: heavy, clunky and awkward, which for me again symbolises an unease with the societal expectations of the feminine.”

When looking at the strange floral arrangements that constitute Mohamed’s Vanitas Woe, one is affected by a sense of frivolity and ferociousness living side by side, as with work “Maybe Baby”, the title of which brings to mind Hortense J. Spillers’ text Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.

And of ancestral experiences of dispossession and those of material privilege, colliding with each other in a way that complicates the  historical binaries and legacies of apartheid. The text painting  “Yearning” which reads “Land is a Romantic Idea” and the painting “Invasive Species (Bishopscourt), see Mohamed  pointedly grappling with the complicated matrix of land dispossession, reclamation, and return within the geo-political space of South Africa .

Notice boards have recently been erected at Boschenheuvel Arboretum, a greenbelt area less than a kilometre from where I’ve grown up, and the space of a historic land claim by  some of the original land owners who were removed during The Group Areas Act. A sentence on the board reads: ‘Following their historic land claim, the original residents of Protea Village are finally coming home.’ My initial feeling over this was a mix of great sadness and great joy. Sadness for what has been lost, what was taken away from so many families in our horrid history of Apartheid (my family included) and the joy and triumph of reclamation which is of course no small victory. But in tracing memories from my childhood, I also feel somewhat conflicted. Within the confines of our fence I felt at home, but our neighbours and residents of this suburb were dominantly white and my mixed race family always seemed woefully out of place. I’m not sure I ever felt like I belonged here so how could I call it home? Can you call it home if they keep asking where you’re from? What “home” are the Protea Village families coming to? 

Like memory, like history, like the labyrinth biographies of violence that shape and pull our bodies apart. Those leaking into our homes and how we come to know ourselves and be known by the world, Mohamed’s Vanitas Woe is a visual reckoning that offers no simple or definitive answers, straddling both sides of our country’s socio-economic and historical coin, between beauty and ugliness, fragility and brutality, and romance and violence.

& just like that, we are talking about power. ‘how awful this must be for you’

I whispered as I closed my eyes. 

Text By Lindi Mngxitama


Artist Biography

Nabeeha Mohamed was born in Cape Town in 1988. She studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. Her very personal work grapples with the contradictions of identity and class privilege in post-Apartheid South Africa. Her position as a woman of colour, hushed during her childhood years in an attempt to assimilate to the white society and culture she grew up in, is now celebrated in her paintings where colour and strangeness take centre stage. These celebrations of identity are intersected with a playful critique of the capitalist economy and class privilege from which she benefits.

Nabeeha has participated in group exhibitions locally and internationally, notably Speculative Inquiry #1 (on Abstraction) (Michaelis Galleries, Cape Town), Limininality in Infinite Space (African Artists’ Foundation, Lagos), Self-Identity in the Face of the Global Pandemic (Gallery 1957, London), Melancholympics, The Wunderwall, (PLUS- ONE Gallery, Antwerp, Belgium), Don’t Give A Damns (Marian Cramer Projects, Amsterdam), Map of the New Art (Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice), Outside the Lines: An Exploration of Abstract Materiality (WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town), HB (A Humble Little Show) and Fugly (Chandler House, Cape Town) and Close Encounters (SMITH Studio, Cape Town). She has participated in residencies at Casa de Ilhabela, Brazil and at the gallery, Johannesburg.

She has had 3 solo presentations including Brown Petal at The Vault, Silo Hotel, Dressing Room at WHATIFTHEWORLD in June 2021 and Sunshine on My Skin is My Favourite Colour at SMITH in 2020.