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Mary Sibande

By Anna Stielau
Lovers in Tango

Mary Sibande
Lovers in Tango, 2011. Installation Courtesy stunned via Flickr.

2013 Standard Bank Young Artist award winner Mary Sibande found herself in the visual arts by chance. After leaving her hometown of Barbeton, Mpumalanga, to study in Johannesburg, she arrived too late to register for the fashion diploma that had been her intended course of study. Instead Sibande settled on a compromise: an art degree at the University of Johannesburg. Ten years down the line, the Iziko National Gallery acquired her work The Reign for a grand total of R 280 000, in a purchase its director, Riason Naidoo, called the most expensive the gallery had ever made.

Sibande’s mounting success at both a local and international level culminated in her selection as a national representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Although the biennale was shrouded in controversy, Sibande’s installations garnered considerable critical acclaim. Her body of work still bears witness to an unshakeable love of fashion, marrying couture, sculpture and performance in a meditation on the politics of identity imbued with an increasingly personal visual iconography. At the age of thirty, she has come a long way from sewing her own Matric dance dress.

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They don’t make them like they used to

Mary Sibande
They don’t make them like they used to

Photo

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MODUS OPERANDI

Since the initial exploration in her debut solo show 'My Madam’s Things' (2006) set the tone, Sibande has devoted her practice to unpacking the socio-political baggage weighing down the black female body in a post-colonial, post-Apartheid South Africa. Her concerns manifest primarily in an examination of the institution of the domestic worker - although Sibande never uses this politically correct term, preferring the more laden ‘maid’ - as embodied in the character of the artist’s alter-ego, Sophie.

Modelled on Sibande herself, and loosely inspired by her family’s history of domestic labour, Sophie is a stand-in for the legacy of racial and gender-based subjugation in South Africa. Her impact is not limited by form. She can be performed as a living entity by Sibande, concretised as a fibre-glass ‘mannequin’ or rendered static in a still photograph.  Three elements remain consistent throughout: her quiet features, eyes always closed, the saturated blue of her maid’s uniform, and her obsidian skin-tone, so black that it renders Sophie more silhouette than figure.

Recalling the work of both Kara Walker and Yinka Shonibare, Sibande’s Sophie cuts a monumental and theatrical figure. Although garbed in the indigo shweshwe fabric of the contemporary domestic uniform (now produced rather horrifyingly by the brand ‘Ethnix’), her costume is of epic and enveloping proportions. Styled as an intricate Victorian ball gown, it spills outward in ever-expanding ornate folds from a body that, in sculptural form, stands well-over seven feet tall. The resulting image is an apparent contradiction. While recognisably a domestic worker, Sophie’s elaborate gown complicates a reading of her as merely a servant. Moreover, the combination of Victorian dress design and modern fabric renders her timeless;  a figure of both past and present, the real and the imagined.

In early works of which They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To (2008) is a choice example, the stark juxtaposition between Sophie’s servitude and her statuesque presence is further emphasised. Here, her costume appears less a celebration of colonial couture as a prison for her flesh, keeping her limbs closely confined. They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To also portrays Sophie darning a Superman outfit. She becomes a seamstress, servicing the grand ambitions of others with little space for her own. However, her eyes are closed as if she daydreams, suggesting that she is perhaps not entirely confined. In the artist’s words, '[Sophie’s]  identity is intrinsically bound by these markers that she is a maid, but her imagination is her escape... If she opened her eyes, it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that. Her dress would become an ordinary maid’s uniform.'

The Johannesburg Art City project of 2010 saw Sibande foregrounding Sophie’s liberation. The maid towered over the city on 19-ft billboards derived from Sibande’s 'Long Live the Dead Queen' exhibition, set free from the limiting walls of the gallery and the smallness of domestic life. Similarly, in The Reign (2010), Sophie straddles a rearing stallion with her dress streaming behind her. Increasingly heroic and imposing, Sophie moves closer to true emancipation as she matures as a chracter.

Interestingly, Sibande’s most recent works have seen a progression away from the character of Sophie. 'I’ve been telling people that Sophie will disappear,' says Sibande, 'Though that figure is really important to me, I don’t want it to go stale. There is only so much I can say on her or about her.' As Sophie sheds her shackles, her usefulness as metaphor is exhausted. 

While they didn’t eliminate her entirely, Sibande’s contributions to the Venice Biennale saw Sophie reinvented. In Of Prosperity (2011) her dress becomes one hundred blue fabric hexagons with orange piping, evoking an enormous beehive in a state of semi-collapse. Less domestic worker and more queen bee, Sophie stands proudly within her hive. Lovers in Tango (2011) breaks more new ground in that it is primarily autobiographical, alluding to the relationship between Sibande’s mother and estranged father. A cluster of 26 sculptures cast off Sibande’s body and thus bearing the markers of her genetic inheritance, Lovers depicts Sophie surrounded by a swarm of soldiers. Each stretches toward the prospect of her open-armed embrace in a gesture reminiscent of holding a weapon. Their green outfits recall both the uniform of toy-soldiers and the colour-scheme of the Zionist Church - a hybridisation of Christianity and ancestor-worship - whose parishioners call themselves ‘soldiers of god’. At their forefront, their commanding officer (playing the part of Sibande’s father) is forever frozen in time on the verge of making contact with Sophie, in a ‘tango’ that can never develop or change.

Although the soldiers of Lovers in Tango adhere to Sibande’s interest in fashion and social station, they herald a new chapter in her oeuvre.

The Reign

Mary Sibande
The Reign

Sculpture

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ARTIST'S STATEMENT

‘I use the body as an exploration of claiming identity in a Post colonial South Africa...[and] as a tool to express concerns in the stereotypical depiction of women, particularly black women.

The body is emphasizing the limitation that history has placed on identity. I like to tease and test the viewer’s expectations of reality in South Africa today not only by using the body as a stage or platform to play out scenes of fantasies and realities, but also by changing the viewer’s expectations. I like to change and distort the body in order to twist expectations, namely her skin colour which is black. I’m looking at disempowerment of black women. My work is shaped by our historical past and refers to Post – Colonial theories. My work deals with the section of women in society that is often off-centre stage, namely maids. Although there has been a political change in our country there are some conditions that are still prevalent, that are direct results of apartheid. I intend to investigate the shadow of apartheid that still lingers in South African society. Although one can argue the freedom of our country under the new democratic dispensation many members of the South African society are not free in their minds haunted as they are by lingering self-doubts. My work also looks at the ideals of beauty and femininity represented by examples of privileged members of society, and the aspiration of less fortunate women to be like them.’

I am a Lady

Mary Sibande
I am a Lady

Photograph

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WHAT OTHERS HAVE SAID

For sheer pleasure, albeit it with a serious theme... Mary Sibande’s self-referential trio of life-size black fibreglass ‘maids’ decked out in outrageous layers of pleated organza, taffeta, ruffles and bustles took my vote as the most rewarding art experience of the festival. Imposing, seemingly fragile, whilst also quite imperious, these figures with closed eyes, all of whom wore the ubiquitous maid’s apron, have a transcendent presence. -  Jeanne Wright, SA Art Times, July 2010

The domestic worker is a mask, like any other  [Sibande]  can slip on and off at will... In assuming the guise of this highly politicised character, Sibande is able to explore, ridicule and subvert the structures that victimised the domestic worker. It's a cathartic and subversive act. [‘Domestic Fantasy’] is a remarkable exhibition that teases the mind long after one has finished viewing it. Its boldness, both visually and conceptually, is a surprise for a young artist's first major solo exhibition. - Mary Corrigall, Mary Sibande: Domestic Fantasy, Sunday Times, July 2009

Mary Sibande, this year’s winner for visual art, is arguably the country’s most successful — which is to say the most mainstream — artist of the past few years. Who can forget the huge billboards on which were emblazoned her creation Sophie, a domestic servant royally clad in working-class blue, which were stuck to a number of high-rise buildings in downtown Johannesburg? - Percy Zvomuya, ‘Talent that needs no kickstart’ , The Mail and Guardian, November 2012

…this year Sibande’s character has escaped into a space of daydream and power, and a place where she claims her position in South African history – a narrative marked by monuments of dead white men riding well-endowed steeds. - Linda Stupart, ArtHeat, March 2010