Ariel Reichman’s search for Maria, the woman who was his nanny in Johannesburg, is primarily personal, yet cannot be detached from the wider political aspect: where is the black woman who worked as a home help for a Jewish family during the Apartheid years, was an inseparable part of the family’s life, but with whom all contact was lost upon their return to Israel?
Reichman was born in Johannesburg, where his father was serving as the Jewish community’s cantor, and lived there until he was 13. His works on show in the exhibition all relate to his Johannesburg childhood memories and focus on Maria, the woman who worked for his parents and raised him, and about whom he knows nothing. The film Maria was shot in 2015. Reichman was invited to exhibit at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, where he met a woman who had known his family. She told him that her own domestic worker, Dora, used to accompany her sons to the Reichman family home for Bar Mitzva lessons, and while they were studying with his father, would spend time with Maria in their kitchen. Reichman flew to Johannesburg, met Dora and travelled with her to the street where his childhood home stood, and together they tried to find Maria.
The film is shot in the street, along fences, gates and yards, and some of the conversations are held through door phone systems. Although it centers on the search for Maria, it is driven by Dora, Maria’s duplicate, who was and still is a domestic worker in Johannesburg. The Reichman family left South Africa in 1991, three years before the end of Apartheid, and it is not only the personal quest for Maria at the core of the film, but also an attempt to understand what has changed in South Africa, what happened to the people who experienced the political change and how it affected their lives.
Shot using a hand-held camera, the film has a documentary-detective mood: In Search of Maria. At times there is a sense of getting there, that there might be a trace leading to her, but eventually the film ends without a result. During the personal-artistic process, Reichman hung posters with Maria’s image throughout the Johannesburg neighborhood and one of them features in the exhibition. In addition, a sequence of photographs taken from the family album is screened: photographs of Reichman and his brothers, wearing skullcaps, with Maria, Lewis the gardener and a team of black workers against the background of a beautiful garden and the swimming pool. When Maria is photographed with Reichman’s grandmother, who came on a visit from Bnei Brak, Israel, they both look like proper religious Jewish women. Reichman remembers his childhood in the large, fence-surrounded house, as an idyll. When he screens the family photographs, innocent memories from Africa, he uses them as testimonies for unraveling underground layers which he is now mature enough to see and decipher.
1979 Johannesburg, South Africa
Berlin and Tel Aviv