Mary Sibande: The purple shall reign at Grahamstown’s arts fest

It’s not often in the art world that a fast-rising star turns her back on a well-founded idea. But for the sake of drama, sculptor Mary Sibande is making the most of her move away from her semi-autobiographical character of Sophie to ­create a mysterious new alter ego.

Sibande is this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for visual art and she is known for the construction of mannequins of a black female domestic worker dressed in the outsized garb of a Victorian maid, as well as the militaristic, khaki dress of a period Church of Zion worshipper. The latter was titled Rubber Soul: Monument of Aspiration, which she created when she was the selected artist for the Pirelli tyre company at the FNB Jo’burg Art Fair in 2011. The work portrayed a frenetic church dancer in mid-stride on a plinth — a monument to a woman seldom elevated to such heroic heights. The fact that the statue wore shoes with soles made of Pirelli tyres added a hint of “Pop” to the work and furthered Sibande’s preoccupation with the home-made fashion of the street.

  • See a slideshow of the picks of this year's National Arts Festival here

“I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was in high school but I ended up not choosing fashion,” she says. “I didn’t apply for it on time, so I chose fine arts and I think it was the best decision I ever made.”

The citation of the Young Artist award summarises her efforts thus: “The body, for Sibande, and particularly the skin and clothing, is the site where history is contested and where fantasies play out. Centrally, she looks at the generational disempowerment of black women and, in this sense, her work is informed by post-colonial theory, with the domestic setting acting as a stage [for] historical psycho-dramas.”

Much has also been made of Sophie’s beginnings as an artistic extension of the women in Sibande’s family who spent their lives toiling as domestic workers — a familiar apartheid story.

But now Sibande is telling art viewers that Sophie is behind her — perhaps to return at some point in another guise.

Her action is indicative of a challenge: “I thought of letting go of Sophie. And, for me to let go, I need to grow as an artist, I need to challenge myself, I need to do something different,” Sibande said at her studio in downtown Johannesburg last week.

Last Wednesday, the Mail & Guardian visited Sibande at her vast pad in run-down Doornfontein. There she occupies half a warehouse, or a previous factory floor, with her partner Lawrence Lemaoana, himself a highly regarded artist turned academic. The two live in the space where Sibande also creates the awe-inspiring, unsettling garments for her life-size mannequins.

A resounding success
In 2010, Sibande’s character Sophie adorned the sides of buildings in the Johannesburg inner city when, to coincide with the Soccer World Cup, 19 of her photographic portrayals of Sophie, in melodramatic poses, were wrapped around buildings in Johannesburg. It was, literally, the “biggest” solo show the town had ever seen.

Her work has also been seen in major cultural centres worldwide: Paris, Venice, Helsinki, Rio de Janeiro and Dakar.

For Sibande, Sophie has been a resounding success, but now she is looking beyond her stock in trade and trying to make meaning of it all. In her case, this involves toiling steadily in her studio at a sewing machine, constructing root-like, convoluted cones that will adorn an installation titled The Purple Shall Govern. The roots represent Sibande’s need for growth. She also speaks of Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s complex philosophical concept of rhizomes, suggesting that at the root of it all everything is connected.

She has taken the title from a particular incident in South African history: in 1989, the police sprayed a gathering of anti-apartheid protesters with dye so that they could be picked up after the protest and charged.

But the colour purple has a deeper significance. What she is trying to do is — as an act of growth — to move beyond the Sophie narratives. The purple colour harks back to a previous show where a character representing her wore purple because: “Purple is a colour of royalty. The clergy and the royalty of England wear, or wore, purple if they were meeting an important person. Purple dye was expensive so only the rich were able to wear it. So I thought: ‘I like the idea that this colour places you.’

“I thought, I am actually privileged and rich at the same time. I am not like my mother, I am not like my grandmother and I’m not like my great-grandmother. And I needed to elevate the figure that represented me.”

But the colour purple, which once stained the bodies of anti-apartheid protesters, furthers her interest in bodily adornments and the role of chance in personal histories.

“Colour is important in South Africa — we make it important,” she says. “Colour places you, colour tells where you are within the geography of South Africa.

“And, when I thought of colour, I realised that I cannot ignore the incident that happened in 1989.”

According to her plans, The Purple Shall Govern will be rolled out in four scenes during the year of Sibande’s reign as Standard Bank Young Artist for visual art.

And, at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, which begins next week, art lovers will be able to see a representation of Sibande bidding farewell to Sophie and moving on to another phase of her life.

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Matthew Krouse
Guest Author

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