The works of Mary Sibande depicts her alter-ego Sophie, a domestic worker who finds refuge in dreams where she emancipates herself from the realism of an ordinary existence, cleaning other people’s homes.
Mary Sibande developed the character of Sophie in series of life-size sculptures and photographic prints. According to Sibande they are a collection of fantasies and imagined narratives, developed from her personal history. Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all maids. Sibande was the first woman in her family allowed to study and she wanted to celebrate this.
“I wanted to celebrate them (the domestic workers). I think they are heroes. It was so hard to put food on the table.”
Sibande uses the human figure as a vehicle for exploring identity in context of a post-colonial South Africa. In the process she also comments on the stereotypical depictions of especially black women in South Africa. The figures used in sculptures are casted from the artist’s own body in fiberglass and silicone, the same material used for shop window mannequins. Sophie’s Victorian costumes are handmade mainly from the blue fabric typical of domestic workers uniforms and workmen’s overalls in South Africa.
Her sculptures and photographic work depicting the domestic work are not intended to create feelings of shame, anger or humiliation in the viewer , but rather to transcend this reality where the domestic worker is able to liberate herself. The implication is that we can all be freed from the past. This is particularly significant for the victims, perpetrators and beneficiaries of Apartheid.
In these works Sophie’s eyes are closed reflecting the aspect that daydreams are products of inner dialogue. The works have a theatrical quality which places them in a realm of fantasy. Her dress is a protest against being a maid and at the same time it is the facade that allows her fantasies to come to life.
According to Sibande, faith and fashion have always been areas of interest for her. “People don’t just wear plain clothes but explore different possibilities of how and when to wear their clothes. I am often reminded of the ‘Sunday special clothes’ one wore as a child, this idea has matured and become a standard idea at places of worship. It is almost as if looking your best and worshiping are birds of a feather. Ideas of gender and race seem to be also another space of exploration. The work was an attempt at subverting the image of the inactive or passive woman.“
The Reign, 2010.
Sibande raises the ordinary women high above the ground, to hero status, thus simultaneously celebrating South African women who have been negatively affected by Apartheid, yet lived courageous lives.
In Reign, Sophie reveals a purple undercoat beneath her trademark blue frock, revealing at the same time a starting point for her later Purple Shall Reign works.
Her latest works are an offshoot from her earlier sculptures of Sophie Ntombikayise. Mary Sibande employs the human form as a vehicle through painting, photography and sculpture, to explore the construction of identity, particularly black women’s identity, in a postcolonial South Africa.
Sibande draws inspiration from a specific event in the late 1980s, in which the police sprayed protestors with a water cannon laced with purple dye to enable them to identify and arrest anti-apartheid activists. This act motivated Mary’s interest in the roles that colour played in the history of this country. Colour remains a predominant factor in our social interactions and it continues to play a dominant role in our perceptions of one another as South Africans. In Sibande’s view it is like a monster that we are all too familiar with. On a personal level, this new work comes full circle as Sibande connects it back to her very first exhibition, where she displayed a figure – that represented her – in purple attire.
This new body of work marks Sibande’s break with her alter ego ‘Sophie’, both figures, however, still have their eyes closed. This suggests that the purple encounter is a further daydream/fantasy of an undepicted external Sophie. In A Terrible Beauty is Born (2013), the domestic worker’s uniform is removed from the Sophie figure by the purple creatures. The tentacled creatures are referred to as “non-winged ceiling beings”. Given that the uniform was instrumental to the reading of much of the political content of Sibande’s previous work, through the connection to her family history, this suggests a release from the connotations of servitude with which they are imbued. In this sense, the implication is that Sibande’s duelling figures could be read in terms of the splitting of the super-ego; Sophie Blue, defined by (unjust) social conventions and the Sophie Purple, impulsive, instinct-driven.
According to Mary Sibande;
This sculpture was dressed in a purple costume and its function was about taking control of identity (or my identity) through its gesture and naming. In a way, purple for me has become about taking control of elements that were not afforded to black people in apartheid South Africa. So, the title The Purple Shall Govern is about extending that declaration to the next level, and taking it to a performative level. Purple for me is a colour of privilege, I am attempting to use this privilege afforded to me by those who have fought for it.
‘Purple is a colour of royalty. The clergy and the royalty of England wear, or wore, purple if they were meeting an important person. Purple dye was expensive and only the rich were able to wear it. So I thought: ‘I like the idea that this colour places you. I thought, I am actually privileged and rich at the same time. I am not like my mother, I am not like my grandmother and I’m not like my great-grandmother. And I needed to elevate the figure that represented me.’
It 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 slogan that emerged was that the “purple will indeed govern”My question is whether they will govern even though they are marked to be arrested.”
For Mary Sibande the purple tentacle, root-like appendages, puts Sophie in limbo where she is evolving. You can’t exactly say what they are but according to Sibande;
I have recently encountered Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the ‘rhizome’. They say a rhizome has neither a beginning nor and end, but always a middle. The philosophers speak about the idea of roots that build up a body. With this work, the ideas of violence are insinuated and yet the violated and the violator are connected.
The figures’ gestures are ambiguous in being neither violent nor defensive, in reference to Francisco Goya’s Fight with Cudgels. The creatures are Sophie turned inside out. They are a look at intestines, an inspection of the mess within.
This work is about deconstructing the familiar ideas built into my work. In other words, questioning what Sophie, the character, had dreamt of. The way to make sense of the dreams is to interrogate their nature, their context and how they built themselves up. In the process of letting go of older ideas of my work, I am opening doors for new challenges.
‘The Purple Shall Govern’ presents the next chapter, in which Sibande speaks of her own aspirations, desires, fears and anxieties of being a woman. The concept of rebirth, where she refers to the idea of transitioning from the person you were before into a new or different idea of yourself – death and rebirth – is extensively explored.
References and Further Reading