Mary Sibande: Reclaiming Historical and Contemporary Narratives
If you have ever seen or heard about Mary Sibande’s work, then you have invariably met Sophie, Sibande’s muse, alter-ago, and subject. Sophie is striking with her black monochromatic figure dressed in a blue Victorian gown with a white apron, set against a backdrop of bright whiteness. Upon closer inspection, you will discover that Sophie always has her eyes closed, signifying a state of impassioned, blissful, and fantastical imagination. Whether Sophie is sewing a Superman jersey (a reference to both her inner power and the men for whom she worked) or trapped in a giant spider web, she is clearly in a state of conflict—physically present yet mentally distant. You will also find that Sophie’s imagination is the only way in which her ordinary maid’s uniform can become an extraordinary Victorian dress in which she can abandon servitude for more dominant roles. The whiteness of the background evokes a bittersweet feeling— while it might give the sense that Sophie’s imagination is free to reign and that no societal structures could restrict it, we are also impressed with the idea that Sophie occupies a place where there is nothing familiar for her to hold on to.
Sophie seeks to critique and transcend all the histories of oppression, claiming her space as a subject in both historical and contemporary narratives. Ultimately, Sophie is a celebration of South African women, past and present. According to Sibande, all the women in her family were domestic workers as a result of apartheid, which enforced the strict segregation of whites and people of colour, keeping the latter in menial positions. Sibande’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all wore the blue uniform associated with the servant class—an association that Sibande says speaks to every South African. “These women were passive in their servitude from one generation to the next,” she says. “If this one dies today, she’s replaced with another one tomorrow. That throne is forever occupied.”
For the artist, however, the colour blue is ripe with positive associations, and so, when in 2009 Sibande first dressed Sophie in vibrant blue, it wasn’t solely as a reference to that darker time but also as a reference to royalty. The colour blue is associated with royalty in Europe, particularly among the Dutch, colonisers of South Africa. It is a stark contrast—the royal and the servant, especially as seen in Sibande’s work.
In 2013, as part of a new body of work entitled ‘Purple Must Govern,’ Sibande introduced the colour purple, as well as wild, organic, fluid movement to her signature black fibreglass sculptures. This body of work was a slight departure from Sophie, asking broader questions about the dynamism of identity and performance. Nevertheless, the series was still political in nature—the colour purple is a reference to a march that took place in Cape Town in 1989, where the police sprayed protesters with purple dye to mark them for arrest after the march.
The colour purple can also be seen in ‘A Reversed Retrogress,’ where Sophie undergoes a transformation, shaking free from the shackles of her usual garb and stepping into the wild fashions of her imagination. We travel with Sophie, witnessing the struggles this journey entails. Suspended above her head is a chandelier of non-descript objects, reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois’s hanging fabric sculptures from 1996, or John Galliano’s 1990s fantasy couture. Sibande refers to these sculptural elements as teddy bears, embryos, and non-winged ceiling beings. Made from the same royal purple as the dress, these stuffed objects flock around Sophie’s head, giving a sense of familial protection.
As Sibande evolves as an artist, so does the power of her message. In her 2017 series ‘In the Midst of Chaos, There Is Opportunity,’ she focuses on the colour red, a hue she says symbolises the aftermath of apartheid and the anger that has been left in its wake. To extend this symbolism, Sophie is depicted as a warrior donning a fiery red dress with puffy sleeves, reminiscent of the old Victorian get-up, except shorter. The dress is paired with matching knee-high boots. Sophie is riding a bucking stallion, surrounded by fierce red dogs. Yet she doesn’t look angry; rather, she is commanding and in control. From her early days as a meek and subdued woman in blue (like so many women of colour who have been oppressed), she has transitioned into a powerful and respected creature, her stature larger and braver. She is no doubt a symbol for South Africa as the country makes steady progress away from its ignoble past. She is also an avatar for the artist herself, breaking free from the subjugations of the many generations before her.
Sibande’s striking commentary on race and gender has earned her a spot among some of Africa’s leading contemporary artists. She has shown her various iterations of Sophie at the Venice Biennale, Met Breuer in New York, and Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town. With each work—whether blue, purple, or teal—her main character grows ever more influential. Represented by South Africa’s SMAC Gallery, Sibande has seen her work rise in prominence, with recent sales of prints like Her Majesty Queen Sophie selling for upwards of $13,000.
Born in 1982, Mary Sibande saw the fall of apartheid during her early adolescence. She still remembers the days when her family was forced to carry dompasses (identification cards held by all black South Africans). She also remembers the protests that helped push apartheid to its demise and her country’s first free elections in 1994.
Sibande obtained her diploma in fine arts at Witwatersrand Technikon (2004) and a B-Tech degree from the University of Johannesburg (2007). In 2013, Sibande held an artistic residency at the MAC/VAL Museum of Modern Art in France, where she created the groundbreaking new installation ‘A Reversed Retrogress.’ That same year, she received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award and her work ‘The Purple Shall Govern’ toured South Africa till early 2014.
While Mary Sibande’s work often has an intensely personal narrative at its heart, it also skillfully references South Africa’s wider history through the lens of feminism, with fashion and rebellion as major themes. But with each globally relevant yet painful truth presented, Sibande’s work reflects the hope that speaks to how far post-apartheid South Africa has come as a nation.
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