Ambition made flesh

There’s something decidedly unladylike about Mary Sibande when she arrives on a chilly mid-morning at Gallery Momo, where her debut solo exhibition of installations and digital prints, Long Live the Dead Queen, is showing.

She could be mistaken for just another arty-farty township chick, but her ideas are more acutely sophisticated than her demeanour suggests.

She swaggers into the gallery driveway sporting a pair of soiled sneakers, a black-buttoned jersey over a purple T-shirt with a paint stain on its sleeve and a tight pair of blue jeans. Soon into the interview, as if deliberately to contradict her appearance, she says she is “interested in Victorian fashion” — especially in how women were generally “constrained then, even by their corsets and dresses”.

She created the fibreglass installations called Sophie as her alter ego, saying that because she was casting her own body “Sophie is me”. She chose the title “because Sophie is such a common name with maids”. The figure is dressed in a multiplicity of costumes and situated in different scenarios that express modes of liberation from gender, racial and class constraints.

Sophie, the central character in Long Live the Dead Queen, is a biographically derived but hypothetical figure who delineates a narrative of her family’s aspirations. Sophie is a domestic worker, a black super-woman figure who escapes her subaltern condition through fantasy. That is why she is always represented with her eyes closed.

Dreams are important for Sibande — she is enacting a long-standing family dream to be more than domestic workers. She captures the history of this dream by echoing her great-grandmother in the piece Sophie-Elsie, based on the first domestic worker in the family line.

She was given the name by her “white employers because they couldn’t pronounce her African name” and is dressed in blue domestic workers’ garb that simulates Victorian costume. “She’s the queen,” says Sibande.

Sophie-Merica is inspired by her grandmother, the second maid in the family line, and is dressed in a blue gown with a white apron to symbolise her social station as a maid.

The figures are allowed to “float on cloud nine”, Sibande says. That is the place where “they have no sorrow, no suffering and they are not maids”.

The third-generation domestic worker in her family was Velucia, Sibande’s mother. Sophie-Velucia’s “dress is bigger because her dream is closer”. Velucia “broke the domestic worker cycle” in the family line by becoming a hair stylist.

She is represented weaving a portrait of Madam CJ Walker with synthetic hair on to a framed canvas. Entrepreneur, philanthropist and social activist, Walker was born in poverty but became the first African-American woman millionaire in the United States — a dream she achieved before women had won the right to vote — and invented the first hair straightener.

The last of the five installations is Sophie-Ntombikayise — the artist as herself — who is the family dream-achiever throwing her hands up in a gesture seemingly saying “enough is enough”. The title uses the artist’s African name because “Sophie is more self-aware now … Sophie can be herself now”, Sibande says, and not a maid because “I’ve got my education and I’ve archived my family dream”.

Sibande says the black tarmac in the installation reflects the “racial limitations” in society — these women are like a “shadow that lingers in history”. They face these historical limitations in the silence of their dreams — for instance, their blackness seems to differentiate them from the opulent Victorian evocations of their costumes.

Long Live the Dead Queen is also about the “convergence of fashion and spirituality”. One of the five digital prints on the show, titled I Put a Spell on Me, is an image of Sibande herself. She wears a maid’s uniform that looks simultaneously like a Victorian gown and the green garments worn by women of the apostolic faith.

The figure is holding a cross normally carried by men in that church and has Louis Vuitton logos “to echo women’s relationship with fashion”. The artist’s interest in garment-making is evident here — Sibande says she wanted to pursue fashion design at one stage.

But she clasps her hands when she talks about being a fine artist: “I’ve no regrets at all.”

Mary Sibande’s Long Live the Dead Queen runs at Gallery Momo until August 3

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Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu is an art historian and freelance writer based in The city of Tshwane.

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