Art@Site Mary Sibande Sophie/Elsie Joburg

Mary Sibande



Sibande created Sophie/Elsie in 2009 in honor of her great-grandmother, who was given the Western name Elsie because her masters couldn’t be bothered to learn her African name. While closing her eyes, Sophie imagines herself as an orchestra conductor, as a superhero, as a businesswoman. Here, her maid’s uniform transforms into the dress of a Victorian queen, complete with billowing cape and dramatic train.
Three generations of Sibande women were employed as domestic workers in Apartheid South Africa, which Sibande references through Sophie’s blue and white uniform—a dress synonymous with the profession there. Though not quite part of the born-free generation (the name given to children born after the start of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1994), Sibande was able to dream of life choices that were inaccessible to her ancestors. These dreams are acted out by her alter-ego Sophie, a life-size fiberglass figure cast in the artist’s own
For artist Mary Sibande, Joburg is like a stage where dreams can come true. "Joburg is a place where I came to with a suitcase full of dreams, which could come true," she says.
Sibande is a small-town girl - she was born and grew up in Barberton in Mpumalanga, where she lived with her grandmother until she finished matric. Then she joined her mother in Joburg.
"I had big dreams in Barberton, which became small dreams, which happens in all small towns. But Joburg gives you another stage on which dreams can come true."
Sibande's dreams certainly seem to have come true in the big city. She has been producing various interpretations of a three-dimensional portrayal of a Victorian maid named Sophie, for the past four years. Earlier this year she was chosen to have 19 large images of her works emblazoned on buildings in the inner city, in a project called Joburg Art City.
Sibande was overwhelmed. "I haven't the words for it," she says. "It is beyond exciting."
Her work, which portrays different generations of her family as maids, is a fantasy of Victorian fluffiness in royal blue or purple dresses with puckered sleeves, offset by pure white apron and doek. The richness of the image is a way of escaping from the real world for the maid Sophie.
Sibande's work was chosen for the art city project because the works speak to one another - there is a theme running throughout them, and that theme is Sophie.
The 28-year-old Sibande lives in downtown Joburg, in a trendy refurbished building called August House, a base for several Joburg artists. She has a fine arts degree from the University of Johannesburg, and held her first solo exhibition in 2006, at the Godart Gallery in Melville. This was followed by two more exhibitions: at Gallery Momo in 2009, and at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year.
She has participated in about a dozen group exhibitions since 2005, and in four residencies - in Paris, Basel in Switzerland, New York, and Sylt in Germany.
Sibande's work appeared at the Joburg Art Fair in 2009 and again this year, where Sophie appeared on a rearing bronze horse, making a striking figure, in a work called The Reign. In it, the maid Sophie is in charge - sitting confidently astride a large stallion, in an almost warlike pose.
One of her works appeared in the Space: Currencies in Contemporary Art exhibition at Museum Africa, sponsored by the City, that ran for the duration of the World Cup.
As Sophie has developed, the artworks have taken on different poses and titles: They don't make them like they used to; I'm a lady; Caught up in the rapture; I put a spell on me; The wait seems to go on forever; Her Majesty, Queen Sophie; and I have not, I have.
Steven Sack, the director of the City's arts, culture and heritage department, supports Joburg Art City and the choice of artist for the project. "Her work is very appropriate; she is a good choice," he says - and he anticipates that they will make the city beautiful.​
Barberton-born sculptor, photographer, and visual artist Mary Sibande gained acclaim for her larger-than-life sculptures of a domestic worker character called Sophie.
Dressed in blue, Sophie is also Sibande’s alter ego, who speaks about race and class in post-apartheid South Africa. For Let Slip the Dogs of War, Sibande let go of Sophie for a new figure dressed in purple.V Sibande is lauded as one of South Africa’s most pre-eminent sculptors. She exhibited at the South African pavilion at the 2010 Venice Biennale and won a Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 2013.
This multimedia work was initially part of Sibande’s travelling exhibition, The Purple Shall Govern, and presents the central character in a familiar purple, old-style period costume, typical of those worn by 19th-century female servants in middle- or upper-class western homes.
The attitude of this particsion of oppressed domesticity is very different, however, from what we might expect of a servant. Far from being subservient, Sophie is a figure of revenge and righteous anger who is ready to set loose the DOGS OF WAR that she holds on leashes.
The sculpture challenges the usual perception of domesticity and domestic work, empowering Sophie and making her into a goddess-like figure.
With furious energy and head held high, an African woman races forward. Adorned in Victorian dress she radiates courage and power. Dogs of war advance under her command. Let slip the dogs of war is a tableau vivant embodying the physical, emotional and psychological evolution of Mary Sibande’s alter-ego, Sophie.
Sophie’s body is the site of imagined trauma which the majority of South Africans would have experienced under apartheid. Through various stages of morphing into an unnamed purple figure, she is the ethereal made real. Often violent and combustive in nature, these transformations exp into alien matter whose materiality is an exploration of pain. By the time the ironworks of Avesta were erected, the colonization of South Africa had been underway for two hundred years. Across the Atlantic, the United States was still quaking from its Civil War which had brought an end to slavery and yet the road to equality and human dignity has proven to be a long one.
Pain often lingers beyond the activating/initiating event, inhabiting a more sinister and dangerous space. This trauma is expressed in memory, posture and gesture. Latent, unexplored pain maintains a militant stance, fending off that which is confrontational in this work of Mary Sibande’s. The work explores objectified pain and hints at the many forms of violence that are embedded in South African history, one of these being the ‘Police Dog’, usually a German Shepard. Pain and specifically trauma has been the primary and distinct experience of the majority of black South Africans throughout the country’s colonial and apartheid hThe normalization of this experience over generations has dulled the experience of pain for many black South Africans.
The emergence and celebration of a rainbow nation further served to mask this pain, but signifiers remain. South African Police dogs trained to tear limbs and rip through the flesh of black South Africans under apartheid are one such signifier. Behind the jubilant celebration of ‘freedom’ the people’s pain remains latent, now ‘performed’ as memory or a collective bad dream. This work attempts to address and capture the emotions that were a daily occurrence for the majority of South Africans under apartheid.
Traditionally the dog of choice for the South African Police was the German Shepherd specifically bred for this purpose; in this work they are replaced by the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier affectionately known as Jock of the Bushveld, famed through stories by author James Percy FitzPatrick, this dog is known for unwavering loyalty to its ownerk of the Bushveld story was set around the town of Barberton, where Mary Sibande was born and grew up and has been immortalized in bronze outside the Town Hall. Staffordshire Bull Terriers are not generally aggressive, but they are considered loyal and respond well to commands.
In the installation, Let slip the dogs of war, the dogs and the vultures are now under the command of the mythic purple figure. These animals have lost all of their innocence and appear to be individual and dangerous as they are intent on an invisible target, with bared teeth and tension in their bodies. The purple figure, as both the instigator and protagonist, is followed by the rest of the combatant that consists of non-winged ceiling beings, dogs and confrontational vultures; symbolizing a collective aggression ready for physical devastation.
The work suggests that any rebuilding or moving forward demands some kind of destruction.
Mary Sibande (born 11 April 1982) is a South African artist based in Johannesburg. Her art consists of sculptures, paintings, photography, and design. Sibande uses these mediums and techniques to help depict the human form and explore the construction of identity in a postcolonial South African context. In addition, Sibande focuses on using her work to show her personal experiences through Apartheid. Her art also attempts to critique stereotypical depictions of women, particularly black women.
Sibande has used her work to expose many different things, from postcolonial South Africa to stereotypes of women as well as stereotypes regarding black women in South Africa. Her work contains multiple types of mediums such as sculpture, photography, design, collage, and even theatrics. Sibande’s painting and sculpture uses the human form to explore the construction of identity in a postcolonial South African context, but also attempts to critique stereotypical depictions of women, particularly black women. She was the South African representative at the 45th 2011 Venice Binale, and her work Long Live the Dead Queen was found in murals all over the city of Johannesburg in 2010. In 2016, her work The Purple Shall Govern toured South Africa. Sibande has also used her artwork to focus on giving voiceless people their voice back. Some have even said that her work confronts the very inkling of a disempowered African female and that her work aims to crack the morse code associated with western ideals of beauty and how they can appeal to black women.
Sophie has played a large role in Sibande's work. Sophie as previously mentioned is Sibande's alter-ego, she is a domestic worker who finds peace and an escape from servitude by dreaming of emancipating herself. The character is in an imaginary and dream-like world where she is finally free. Sophie's life is collected and presented through a series of human-scale sculptures, molded on Sibande herself. Sophie's working uniform is gradually transformed into the grand Victorian wear of the European elite. Placing Sophie in Victorian clothing comments on the restriction of women in these large, heavy and tightened-up dresses. Her dress is a protest against being a maid, and at the same time, it is the façade that allows her fantasies to come to life. Sophie starts to take different roles throughout Sibande's work in addition to being different types of people. In each work Sophie portrays different personas, one being a Victorian queen, another being a general who leads an entire army to victory, she's also a beautiful woman going to a ball and even a pope at one point. Sophie is portrayed as a hero and a character full of strength and perseverance.
Furthermore, Sibande takes Sophie into different exhibits throughout the years. She first portrays Sophie in her “Long Live the Dead Queen” exhibition from 2009 to 2"Long Live the Dead Queen" portray Sophie as a maid who is reclaiming who she post-colonialism. She is then brought back again in a different setting in “The Purple Shall Govern” in 2013–2017. This exhibit is when Sibande allow"new" Sophie to come out and express herself. The exhibit takes a place of an installation which takes over the space. Sophie makes a reappearance with Sibande's most current series, “I Came Apart at the Seams” which takes place from 2019 to the present. Sophie is also depicted in a sculpture called Sophie/Elsie, which Sibande created in honor of her great-grandmother (a domestic worker whose masters gave "Elsie" as a Western name).
Sibande was determined to be a fashion designer and said, "There were no museums and galleries in the town I grew up in; that was foreign to me." Sibande has used her knowledge and love for design to incorporate in her works. She has focused her fashion design for every piece of wardrobe her sculptures wear. In her "Conversation with Madam CJ Walker" exhibit, her knowledge and skill of cloth and fashion design are apparent. Her design and fashion work are also very carefully thought about. The fabrics and color Sibande chooses to use have different meaning and impacts on her work. In a journal article for the UNISA and Durban Art Gallery article an author named Carol Brown spoke about the usage of fabric in Sibande's work. She states that "The fabric used to produce uniforms for domestic workers is an instantly recognizable sight in domestic spaces in South Africa, and by applying it to Victorian dress she attempts to make a comment about history of servitude and colonization as it relates to the present in terms of domestic relationships."
Sibande has used photography to capture and construct her artworks. In 2013 she had seven enlarged photographs of her work displayed on the streets of French suburbs such as Ivry-sur-Seine, Vitry-sur-Seine and Choisy-le-Roi. Photography has not only played a big part on her big public displays but also in her day-to-day work. Sibande takes into consideration how her work will be photographed which is reflected in how she presents and structures her works and installations. Many of her shows include both a display of her sculptures as well as photographs she's taken of her work or installations.
At first, she would make little figures out of clay and that was about the full extent of artworks at the time. In the end, she would with the art route; however, Sibande states, "...I can now marry the two worlds – fashion and fine art aren’t far off from each ot" Later on Sibande background and knowledge with sculpture became an extensive one. With exhibits such as her "Long Live the Dead Queen Series" in 2013, one is able to see the beginning of her character "Sophie" who is one of her best known and reappearing character in her sculptures. Sophie, the main feature in all of her works is a sculpture. Sophie is molded after Sibande herself and is like her alter-ego. Sibande's sculpture draws energy from the long history of female domestic workers, during the apartheid and post-apartheid. The sculpture, Sophie, attempts to critique the long history of oppression in South Africa, specifically regarding black women in South Africa.
Sibande's work is well known for both her whimsy and theatrics. The theatrics of her work plays a big role in how she showcases and portrays her characters as well as her messages. In an article by Leora Farber the author makes an analysis that many other critiques have said, "Sibande’s theatrical quotations of the language of dress and use of dramatic poses may be related to photographic representations of the Victorian female hysteric in various stages of a hysterical attack, in that they both evoke a sense of exces" The use Sibande has for positioning her sculpture, in addition to all of the other components of her work are to evoke an impression on the viewer.