"Sweep the yard girl": Brooms, wifely duties and the subversive art of Usha Seejarim

Hitting home: representations of the domestic milieu in feminist art

Keywords: makoti (bride), mamazala (mother-in-law), Fiela Ngwanyana, traditional African wedding, domesticity


Jumping over the broom in African and African-American contexts symbolises the bride’s commitment to clean the house and yard of the new home she is joining—to perform service through labour. In South Africa, a popular cultural song, Fiela Ngwanyana (sweep [the yard] girl), is often sung at traditional wedding ceremonies to usher the makoti (bride) into the groom’s family and is laden with meanings. Through singing, dancing, and sweeping the path clean for their new makoti, the groom’s family subtly inform her of the politics of household labour to come. I focus on a specific stanza in the song and make connections between the broom, the makoti and mamazala (mother-in-law)’s relationships, and the themes of femininity and domesticity.

I argue how brooms are used as symbolic tools of othering and suppression within the marital home. I discuss how the broom—a docile, mundane, handmade object—transcends its original, functional use and becomes highly charged with meaning as a signifier of femininity, domesticity, and subservience. In order to unpack the broom’s nuanced meanings, I refer to a selection of Usha Seejarim’s works, in which she features brooms and transforms them into objects of transgression and reclaiming power.