Sasol Art Museum, Stellenbosch
Mary Sibande’s current exhibition ‘Right Now’ depicts the transformation of her sculptural alter-ego Sophie into a new persona figure dressed in purple. Sibande’s sculptural persona is a mimicry of her own form constructed from a silicone and fiberglass body-cast. The sculptural persona of Sophie depicts a domestic worker who transforms her domestic wear into Victorian attire. ‘Right Now’ sees Sophie’s departure from her domestic realm and enters the world of the purple figure. The exhibition is an attempt to visualise Sophie’s transition into power and the inherent duality in such a power position. ‘Right Now’ considers how power can be both assertive and destructive.
A general view of the exhibition space provides one with a display of a central sculpture piece and four large scale photographs that depict different sculptural installations. The overriding display of the colour purple is noteworthy and suggests a prominent role in the exhibition. A starting point to this investigation and to Sophie’s transition can be found in the photograph A Terrible Beauty Is Born (2013). The photograph locates the sculptural figure of Sophie in the centre as her domestic wear is lifted from her figure by the tentacle creatures that extend into a dense background around her. Sophie is liberated from the domestic control and is physically opened up to the discovery of her own voice in the form of the root-like structure that emanates from her womb.
The title of the photograph encapsulates the exhibition’s contextual use of historical uprisings. A Terrible Beauty Is Born expresses a line from the poem Easter, 1916 by W.B. Yeats. The poem references the Easter Rising that depicted Ireland’s struggle for independence from British rule. A further historical reference is made with regards to the exhibition’s use of the colour purple. The colour played a prominent role in the 1989 anti-apartheid march were protesters were sprayed with purple dye in order to mark them for arrest. This action is transferred onto the clothed body of the purple figure. Both events depict a stance against authority that show a resistance towards a voiceless and powerless position. A Terrible Beauty Is Born suggests the first step towards an assertion of power and an independent identity that stands in resistance to oppression.
The position of power that the purple figure aspires to is further developed by the central sculpture that occupies the floor space. Succession of Three Ages (2013) depicts a sculptural figure in a state of overflow, as the body is enveloped by a mass of purple roots. The hands are slightly visible as they hold the reins of four rocking horses. As a title, the piece suggests a reference to the three generations of women that were domestic workers in Sibande’s family. This reference is further echoed in the four aligned rocking horses, which suggest that Sibande includes herself in the generational disempowerment. Sibande uses her art to extend her position of power to the women in her family.
The duality that is inherent in such a power position is suggested by the referenced historic uprisings. An assertion of power takes place when one claims a stance against authority, but the resulting action might take a destructive turn as suggested by the arrest and killing of protesters. Like the uprisings, the photograph Right Now (2015) enacts this duality. The expression ‘Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war’ is recognisable in the gesture of the purple figure, as her outstretched arm commands the blood red dogs to charge towards the viewer. This expression and gesture allude to the rampage that follows an assertion of power.
A final overview of the exhibition brings one back to the central sculpture piece. Engaging with the duality of power, the exhibition reminds one that a reclamation of power can be both beneficial and harmful to the self. One is left with the image of a sculpture that seems to have self-destructed. Its unrecognizable form reveals the destructive nature of power as the purple roots seep from the sculptural cast.
Sophie’s identity is no longer the focal point of Sibande’s work, but ‘Right Now’ suggests that the artist herself steps into the role. She aligns herself with a generation that takes control of their own identity and takes charge of the power that should be afforded to them.