Times Live | Graham Wood:
Mary Sibande is about as famous as a young artist can get in South Africa. With the creation of her alter-ego, Sophie, in 2007, she found instant success right out of art school.
Gutsy: Artist Mary Sibande sheds Sophie’s apron in a gesture of freedom in her new exhibition. Image by: ANTHEA POKROY/GALLERY MOMO
Sophie is the figure in the blue domestic worker’s uniform that’s been transformed into an elaborate Victorian gown. She instantly captured the public’s imagination.
Over the next six years, Sibande created ever more elaborate variations of that famous dress, and Sophie ended up in important collections both here and abroad.
Last year, Sibande was named Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year. For her exhibition tour, The Purple Shall Govern, now at the Standard Bank Gallery, she finally puts Sophie to rest. It is a watershed moment in her career, filled with its attendant anxieties and uncertainties, but it opens up bigger questions.
Sophie’s poses and dresses dramatised her dreams and became a vehicle through which Sibande interrogated and subverted the way the maid’s uniform inscribed Sophie’s position of servitude on her body and in her dress. Sibande used the familiar blue fabric to express Sophie’s fantasies and return her dignity and humanity. It was a personal project, too, as three generations of Sibande’s forebears had worked as domestic servants.
In The Purple Shall Govern, Sibande introduces a new figure, who, like Sophie, is made from casts of Sibande’s own face and body, and in the photographic prints, is Sibande herself. But this new figure is different. Her dress is purple and sprouts appendages that resemble roots, intestines or foetuses, and are accompanied by a host of strange, formless creatures.
She sheds Sophie’s apron and headscarf in a gesture of freedom (Sibande is the first in her family to have a tertiary education and not to be a domestic worker), but her dresses seem at times to engulf her. It is sometimes hard to tell whether she is being swallowed by her costume or is emerging from it. And in the two newest pieces, her dress is no longer fabric, but fibreglass.
The new figure represents a shift in Sibande’s attention from the redress of the past to questions of the future. What is she to become? What direction will her art take? Who is Sibande without Sophie? This is less navel-gazing than it sounds. The exhibition becomes a broader exploration of what art does. How have Sophie’s dreams affected reality? And Sibande?
A number of the works make reference to moments of violent political rebirth. Two works – Terrible Beauty and A Terrible Beauty is Born – refer to the Irish poet WB Yeats’s poem Easter 1916, about a violently squashed political uprising in Ireland that came to represent bloodshed, but ultimate independence. The exhibition title refers to the 1989 protest in Cape Town at which police sprayed people with a water cannon filled with purple dye so they could be identified later and arrested. A slogan that arose from the protest, captured in graffiti, was The Purple Shall Govern.
Through this self-dramatisation, Sibande explores the process of forging the future, with all its ambiguity, weight of responsibility and anxiety. It becomes clear that leaving Sophie behind is much more than just an artistic dilemma, it’s a question central to our times.
‘The Purple Shall Govern’ is on until June 14 , Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
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