Engaging with South African history, artist Mary Sibande explores ideas around race, gender, and labour through her art making.Read More
Using sculpture and photography, Sibande's art practice revolves around her alter ego, Sophie, who takes on a myriad of personas.
Sophie is typically a life-sized fibreglass figure that Sibande creates using casts of her own face and body. The artist dresses Sophie in period costumes, which began as a maid's uniform and later evolved to include elaborate gowns. In a roundtable conversation for her 2019 solo exhibition, I came apart at the seams, at Somerset House, London, the artist explained that she chose a 'Western name' for Sophie as a reminder of the history in South Africa that led Black children to have Western names.
Colour is a potent symbol in Mary Sibande's artworks. Through the colours blue, purple, and red, the artist imagines Sophie as a maid, a mysterious and empowered woman, and a powerful priestess, respectively.
'Long Live the Dead Queen' (2008–2013) is Mary Sibande's first body of work featuring Sophie. It derives from her family history: both the artist's grandmother and mother worked as domestic servants.
Sophie, dressed in a blue maid's uniform—the colour associated with servitude in Apartheid South Africa—adopts different personas as she imagines different narratives. She appear as a lady holding up a parasol in a sea of blue tulle in I'm A Lady (2009). In Silent Symphony (2010), she is depicted as an orchestra conductor, with her massive train opening behind her like theatre curtains.
Long Live the Dead Queen is also the title of Sibande's 2009 solo exhibition at Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg. Receiving critical acclaim, the exhibition led to her breakthrough in the art world.
Mary Sibande has also dressed Sophie in a turquoise army uniform, drawing from her father's service in the military. Sophie the Soldier appears in multiples, their arms raised or tense from holding invisible rifles. They stand on flat, black bases reminiscent of toy soldiers in such works as Lovers in Tango (2011), where a group of soldiers confronts Sophie the Maid.
In the 'The Purple Shall Govern' series (2013–2017), Sophie is dressed in purple and surrounded by soft, purple-tentacled sculptures. Sibande's use of the colour purple is inspired by its association with anti-Apartheid demonstrations in South Africa, when in 1989 police shot purple dye through water cannons to mark the protesters. In the aftermath of what was dubbed the Purple March, graffiti proclaiming 'The Purple Shall Govern' appeared on a city hall.
Clad in purple, Sophie seems as though she is becoming one with the tentacles, transforming into a supernatural being. The photographic print Admiration of the Purple Figure (2013) shows Sophie surrounded by the tentacle creatures, who seem to rise up to her in admiration.
Red also emerges as a recurring colour in 'Purple Shall Govern', bringing to the work its association with urgency, anger, and passion. In Right Now! (2015), Sophie appears to send off a pack of red dogs. This work was inspired by the then-pregnant Sibande's desire to 'fix the world before my child comes', as the artist told Somerset House in 2017.
Since 2017, red has been the dominant colour in Sibande's ongoing series, 'In the Midst of Chaos There is Also Opportunity'. Sophie becomes a powerful priestess in this body of work, a figure 'between what has been and what could be'. In The Domba Dance (2019), Sophie holds a heart in the air while two dogs—one with four heads—stand vigilant on either side of her.
Mary Sibande has exhibited internationally, holding solo exhibitions such as Unhand Me, Demon!, Kavi Gupta, Chicago (2021); I came apart at the seams, Somerset House, London (2019); Right Now!, Woordfees Festival, Stellenbosch, South Africa (2016); Mary Sibande and Sophie Ntombikayise Take Central Court, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas (2013). The Purple Shall Govern, a solo exhibition of her eponymous series, toured South Africa and France between 2013 and 2014.
Selected group exhibitions include To Reclaim, Kavi Gupta, Chicago (2019); Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now), The Met Breuer, New York (2018); South Africa: The Art of a Nation, British Museum, London (2016); ReSignifications: Imagining the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories, Museo Bardini, Florence (2015); Where do I end you and you begin? Edinburgh Festival of Arts, Scotland (2014).
Sibande has also presented her works in international biennials and festivals, among them BredaPhoto 2020, Netherlands (2020); the Lahore Biennale (2020); Havana Biennale (2019 and 2015); Dakar Biennale (2018); Beijing Biennale (2015); Lyon Biennale (2013); and the Venice Biennale (2011), where she represented South Africa.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021
Senzeni Marasela traces her practice within the context of South Africa's generation of post-apartheid female artists.
Models of the proposed artworks will be exhibited on the High Line from January 2021.