Photography by Brett Rubin

Taking back control over the black imagination: In conversation with Mary Sibande

It’s a special moment when one is given the opportunity to talk with their heroes. I first met Sophie during her exhibition as the main attraction in Mary Sibande’s solo exhibition ‘The Purple shall Govern’ in the Grahamstown National arts festival. Seeing Sophie, a life sized ebony skinned sculpture in Victorian dress, for the first time reminded me of one of my fond childhood memories of playing dress up. Just like Sophie I too would have a blue dress that would be shielded by a white apron. Like the little protagonist of ‘Alice in wonder land’ I wanted to be “pretty”, I wanted to be a lady and just like Sophie I would love to lather myself in layers of petticoats and puffy sleeves. Such, as I recall the memory, would act as a separation between me and my reality. The bigger the “poof” the closer to my own dreams. I would be able to situate myself fully submerged in my imagination.

Yet it would be through Mary Sibande, the creator of this Sophie character that I would finally be able to engage with her motives for the character of Sophie. So often are we so emerged in our own idealizations that we forget that ideas made home within our minds have their own context from which they sprung. Our interview would be one of a debate about the character of Sophie and Mary’s process of delivering her work.

Motlatsi Khosi (MK): You “blew up” in 2013 as the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner (SBYAA) and your images were regularly in public space such as billboards in the Johannesburg CBD featuring your work and the tag line “the purple shall govern”.  And then you went silent. What have you been up to for the last 3 years?  What has your journey been like as an artist moving from working within the private home to public space sensation within the art world and receiving all the international and local recognition?

 Mary Sibande (MS): My prize as the Standard Bank Young Artist Award recipient in 2013 was the culmination of a few years of focused work. The acknowledgement of my work in this way presented the opportunity and challenge of finding other sources of inspiration. I have not had a solo exhibition since 2009, but the intensity has not subsided as I have responded to calls for my work to be shown internationally, mostly in group exhibitions, art fairs and residencies.

Due to being a recipient of the award my work titled “the Purple Shall Govern” went on a national tour, gracing some of the leading museums in South Africa. Beginning of course at the Grahamstown National Festival, making stops at Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town, Oliewenhuis Museum in Bloemfontein and making its final stop at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg.

I was invited to a residency in Michigan University at the Penny Stamps School of Arts. I was also given the opportunity to present a talk in Detroit. During my stay I was able to visit Toledo art museum in Ohio to witness the inauguration of my work at their Collectors dinner.  In the same year, I presented my work in a group exhibition titled ‘My Jo’Burg’ at La Maison Rouge in Paris. The show was an assemblage of work that presented the diverse range of work and modes of visual and cultural productions by South African artists. I was also invited to participate in the prestigious 12th Lyon Biennale in France. As well as Lagos Photo in Nigeria to exhibit photographic prints from my Sophie series.

Mary Sibande studio for Bubblegum club

MK: Your work has led you across continents and you have lead it forward.  It has evolved from a particular context and history yet you yourself are growing in both your skills and ideas.  The travels to unfamiliar places must have offered new contexts to influence your work. How did they influence your work? 

As the show progressed I had to re-curate it according to space and context, this meant that elements of the show were added on and taken at different stages.   My visit to La Maison Rouge coincided with my residency at the Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne (MAC VAL Museum) also in Paris. This was an incredibly rich residency where I conceptualized and made work using the hosts of resources made available to me there. I worked with talented textile and Fashion Students to create the work. I worked with a seamstress who was able to translate my ideas even though our different languages would be an obstacle to our work. I was assigned a foundry that was able to make my fiberglass figure. I eventually constructed an installation piece in one of the spaces in the museum and was met with great approval. The museum also commissioned some of the previous body of works to be made into billboard posters, making the little town of Vitry-Sur-Seine (outside of Paris) into a giant ‘Sophie’ gallery.

The body of work ‘The Purple Shall Govern’ has been seen in a few manifestations. The body of work seems to build its own momentum as it seems to attract the attention of curators from leading museums. One such invitation came from the Swedish sculpture park called ‘Wanas’. This was an exciting proposition for me as I was asked to create work that would be installed in a forest. The works durability had to be taken in consideration and so the installation was made entirely of fiberglass sculpture. It was here that my visual language would be thoroughly tested.

I have also participated in the Winter Sculpture Show entitled ‘A Place in Time’ at Nirox in Johannesburg, responding to an annual call for artists at their exhibition space. The commission made it possible for me to create a four meter steel sculpture titled the “Mechanism”, the work was a larger than life presser foot and needle of a sewing machine. The work was paying homage to one of my greatest tools that I use to make my work.

MK: Who is your character Sophie that features so prominently in your work? She has your face yet her image speaks to the South African story of woman, of black lives and a stolen collective humanity. 

MS: Sophie is an ambiguous hybridized figure from my imagination. She is also supplemented by family histories or stories from my matriarchal lineage. To begin with, her naming is derived from the process of naming black women by their employers who considered their ‘given names’ too difficult to pronounce. This is one of many reasons for why I gave her that name.

I considered that naming is equally a process of de-historicizing, removing, obliterating, and or defacing and individual. I regard this being a violent process. My Great Grandmother was named “Fanedi” at birth. This tongue twister of a name was removed from her birth certificate and she would then be referred to by the Christian name ‘Elsie’.

The other source that Sophie stems from is the fiction that furnishes dreams or aspirations of this matriarchal lineage. I attempted to take the place of each woman and project what may be available to them as ways of escaping servitude. The fiction is informed by both my ideas and reflections given to me by these women.

Sophie is the embodiment of the maid, the ubiquitous domesticated body described by W.E.B Du Bois in the book ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ who served as a warning within itself and the context that nourishes these personal/political but omnipresent battles. Sophie is me, my mother, my grandmother and great grandmother working to re-engineer our history.

MK: I personally see two concepts in your Sophie character. The being of a woman in domestic garb reimagined in Victorian dress. Her agency, her dreams, a corporealized visualization in statuesque beauty. A black body one step closer to her mistress. Her story reminds me of Fanon’s Black skin white mask chapter ‘The Woman of Color and the White Man’ where for the character of Capecia her ascension into white society could be achieved through a white husband.  For the character of Sophie it is being attained through clothing as a means of getting closer to white society. Both characters could be unfairly judged as suffering from an inferiority complex but I would argue that both show the contradictions of agency in what it means to be a black woman under a colonial maze. 

MS: Sophie’s aspirations do not lie in wanting to be anything (i.e. white woman) other than what she is. She is a black woman and a mother. Sophie’s desires are located in an elsewhere space or dream space, the material objects of her desires are illusive and can only remain as dream objects. Closing her eyes is the only way to concretize them. Perhaps her desires can be described as ‘envious’, an adjective which is committed to attaining freedom in response to a context wherein freedom is denied materially. The dresses hybridize a different identity by forging the blue fabric that usually makes workers overalls with the suggested form of a Victorian dress. With this combination an alternative maid’s uniform is created, and symbolically attempting to transcend beyond the dichotomy set up by the racial ideology of the colonial and apartheid gaze. The women in my family have not responded to describing themselves as inferior, but present to me the possibility of multiplicity. Sophie attempts to disempower that constructed dichotomy.

MK: The second Sophie is woman overwhelmed by her once emancipatory garb. What was once Victorian luster depicted by the previous Sophie has transformed itself into malignant colonial nightmare? She is overwhelmed. Her face now overshadowed, her features fighting to make themselves seen or has she just give up to that fact that she will forever be locked in her own materiality. Does this work serve as a warning to choose our tools well lest they end up oppressing our own selves? 

MS: With the body of work ‘The Purple shall Govern’, I push and strive towards an abstract space of emotions. I engage with contemporary fears and desires referencing as a starting point a historical event. The Purple shall govern was a slogan coined by the people in 1989 after they had been sprayed by the apartheid police, who laced their water cannons with purple dye to identify them after the teargas, gun smoke and dust had settled.  This opens up ideas that are less representational and more abstract. The work engages with anger, violent reactions and a response to the bewildering apartheid and colonial after taste.

Mary_SIbande Bubblegum Club Interview

MK: I am also seeing two major themes in your work, domestic work and Victorian aspirations. Two opposing worlds which for South Africa has a major significance especially in relation to what it means to be both female and situated within the (continued) Apartheid.  Within such a white supremacist space where Victorian dress still has major symbolism to those who would still revere a colonial past. The Victorian dress crudely representing white woman and the domestic dress crudely representing the black woman. In your works do you see these two words as cohabitating under the white supremacist masculine with Sophie being able to perform such heroisms as in your work depicting her on a life size horse or with arms flayed with staffing “putting a spell on the you”. Do you see the relationship as one that is toxic with one feeding on the other or is the story not as simple as “black and white”. 

I find inspiration in women who work hard, juggling between being objects of servitude and being women. I find there is little room left to celebrate them and Sophie’s complexities become an aperture to contrast, contradict and challenge a mono-narrative. I recently listened to Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie issue a warning which she called ‘the danger of the single story’, what I found valuable about this is that in navigating through their lives these women had agency and they expressed it outside their context of being exploited and used. They raised kids, had husbands and lived.

MK: Do South Africans who engage with your work respond to it differently to your viewers abroad?  Has your work, instead, taken on a common understanding in how it has been received? One of the biggest contradictions can stem from the artists intention which can act in contradiction with how their audiences read their work. Are artist ethically responsible for work that speaks to their viewer, if so, does this mean that they have to carefully curate their work to suite their viewers? 

MS: I find that the open-endedness of art allows viewers to engage with the work from any direction. The audience comes to the work with baggage and the combination of that visual and sensory experience can be fruitful. I do not try to fit the work to cater for an audience for I believe that the processes of making have their own integrity. The audiences have not determined what I make.

I have been on various residencies and with each one I have found suitable shifts in my work; the contexts have nurtured experimentation which I have welcomed. What has been interesting is the universal image of the black female which tends to be based on stereotypes, but with these images there are slight shifts and difference. I made a work titled ‘a conversation with Madame C.J Walker’, wherein I found an overlap of her story with my mother’s. I had been on a residency in New York during Black History Month in the US.  Ms. Walker had found her wealth after slavery by making hair straightening cream. The concoction made her the first black female millionaire in the 1920’s. Although my mother is not a millionaire, she worked in a hair salon as a teenager which encouraged her to open up various small businesses when she left for Johannesburg. Their entrepreneurial ventures became the door to actualizing a freedom.

There is a universal relating to the work as the institutions of apartheid, colonialism or slavery where centered on limiting the black female body in all the possible forms. The work often opens imaginative possibilities of how to think of this body.

MK: My understanding of Sophie and what she represents would often be in conflict with Mary’s understandings but such, I ask the reader, should not be shied away from but rather fully engaged with. My discussion with Mary reflects the various interpretations on what it means to experience art, experience blackness as art and also the image of black in art.  Such difference represented the diversity in what it means to engage with black thought and those who inspire its ideas.

Keep up to date with Mary’s work through her Instagram. You can also follow her on Facebook.

Editorial image credits

Photography: Brett Rubin

Styling: Jamal Nxedlana

Hair & Make up: Orli Meiri

Image 1:

Mary wears a gillet by Black Coffee, accessories from The Source and a Khanga head wrap.

Image 2:

Mary wears dress by Black Coffee, headpiece by Qba Nkosi, boots & accessories from The Source.

 

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