Tea for the master, coffee for the madam

Tea for the master, coffee for the madam

Every morning, one of my parents would ring the bell installed above their bed. The sound produced would exit in the kitchen. A couple of minutes later, Maria would enter the room serving tea for the master and coffee for the mad. She would repeat this phrase every morning. Well, to be more accurate, my father used to drink hot water with sugar and not tea. As a young child in apartheid South Africa, I would lie in my parents bed and witness this daily ritual. Maria was a second mother to me.

Since I left South Africa in 1991 (I was age 13 ), I haven’t revisited and surely neither have I heard from Maria or the other blacks living in our back yard. There was Lewis the gardener who used to play soccer with me in the front garden. I remember every time the Kaiser Chiefs lost a soccer game he would fast for 24 hours. Only today can I acknowledge what it meant for him to see a black team play soccer on his small b/w television. My mother says that as a young child I could speak fluent Zulu. Today, I don’t recognise a word.

I have no knowledge of Maria’s family name. To be honest I doubt ‘Maria’ is her birth name. I imagine it to be a name she invented in order to simplify the reality of working in a white family household. The name embeds the symbol of a caring mother – a woman that left her own family to take care of another families’ children. I guess it was easier for us white people to call her Maria rather then a native South African name. She loved me, Maria, and I loved her. A paradox or twisted reality that a woman could love and care for me, while she didn’t actually have any other choice, of work, social benefits, or rights. A political reality embedded in an intimate family existence. I was born in 1979 as a white baby in racist Johannesburg.

For the duration of the exhibition, I will perform this ritual Tea for the master, coffee for the madam wearing a gown based on photographs of Maria’s working clothes taken from family albums. As the viewer pushes the bell, he or she will be served tea (for the master ) or coffee (for the madam ). The visitors may then sit on the two chairs installed under a framed C-print of myself and Maria.

My research starts in Berlin where I currently live and will continue on board a direct flight to Johannesburg. Where and how it shall continue I do not know.

With love,

for Maria


In 2 weeks I will arrive in South Africa. I haven’t been here (there) since I left with my family at the age of 13. I am on a search to find Maria / My nanny / A second mother.