Focus on a committed South African artist: Mary Sibandé

Mary Sibande in Johannesburg in September 2019, photographed for the FT by Gulshan Khan

Johannesburg-based South African sculptor Mary Sibandé was born in the early 1980s. Her work focuses on social, racial and gender issues in post-apartheid society.

The heroine of her artwork is a domestic worker called Sophie. It’s a commonly given name by the white bourgeois in South Africa to the women working for them.

Mary Sibande uses this character as a kind of alter-ego she showcases in large installations or photographs.

I’m a lady

Through the character of Sophie, she tells the story of the lives of black women in her country and uses their dreams, their claims and their fears to feed her speech.

She knows this story perfectly since her grandmother and her mother were domestics workers. But Mary Sibande, like a part of the younger South African generation, took advantage from the end of apartheid and from the presidency of Nelson Mandela to break this circle. Graduated in fine arts from the Teknikon Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg, she is the first graduate in her family to attend university.

Sophie’s character has evolved over time and her majestic costumes are a central part of her work. Through vibrant colors that oscillate between blue, purple and red, she tells the story of South Africa and the transformation of her alter ego Sophie.

The blue of “Long Live the Dead Queen” (2009–2013)

The character of Sophie was first introduced in this series. It represents Mary’s grandmother. With a hybrid costume between the traditional maid’s uniform and the Victorian princess dress, Sophie seems to be dreaming of a better life, far from these anonymity and household chores. The reverie organizes in turn multiple metamorphoses and Sophie takes up the different roles refused to her mother or grandmother, to which the work pays homage. Sophie is a warrior, a horsewoman, a priestess, a queen.

Sibande’s mother and grandmother are proud of her artistic career, and her grandmother loves to show her friends articles and reviews of Sibande’s work. “I collected a lot of stories about her,” Sibande said. “And I remember one day she said to me

“It’s amazing what you do, to take this horrible story and make these beautiful things out of it.”

Silent symphony

The purple of “The Purple Shall Govern” (2013–2017)

This color with symbolic connotations of nobility, luxury and power, is a reference to the anti-apartheid demonstrations “Purple Rain” of September 2, 1989. To chase away the demonstrators, the riot police used a water cannon projecting violet dye to help identifying and arresting activists covered in dye.

Philip Ivey, one of the demonstrators, managed for a while to take control of the cannon and directed it to the regional offices of the ruling National Party. After the demonstration, the anti-apartheid graffiti “The purple shall govern”, a paraphrase of the ANC’s freedom charter, would appear.

In this series, which takes place at the pivotal time of the end of Apartheid, Sophie, depicted in “A Reversed Retrogress, Scene 2” shows a woman with her arms raised, trying to free herself from roots that may as well appear as hindrances or as blood vessels, source of life.

Cry Havoc

The red of “In the midst of chaos there is also opportunity”

The dreams and hopes made possible by the end of the apartheid meet with the economic and social realities: brutality continues to dominate relations between men.The promises of an egalitarian future have given way to multiple injustices and Sophie becomes the “Red Figure”, between a spiritual guide, a priestess and a vengeful and sacrificial deity (There’s a storm in my heart, 2019).

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity

In London, the Somerset House organised the first solo exhibition “I Came Apart at the Seams” from October 3, 2019 to January 5, 2020 by Mary Sibande, in partnership with the 2019 edition of the 1–54 Contemporary African Art Fair, an exhibition recounting these three series in different mediums.

Promotion de l’Art Africain