This biography was written by Artthrob in collaboration with SAHO.
Mary Sibande - a sculptor, photographer, and visual artist based in Johannesburg - is interested primarily in questions of the body and how to reclaim the black female body in post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa.
She often works through an alter-ego, Sophie, a sculptural figure who traverses the uncanny valleys of liminal space. Sophie is personal. Her visage is modeled largely after the artist herself, and she draws on the history of the women in Sibande’s family who worked as maids throughout the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. But Sophie is also symbolic, a figure that stands in to speak for femininity, blackness, labour, post-coloniality, and communities on the margin as a whole. She moves in between history and contemporary life. Sophie bears the weight of centuries-old colonial narratives attempting to Other the African woman. At the same time, Sophie’s dress, the familiar bright blue of contemporary domestic uniforms, reminds us of the kinds of subjugation that lingers in our society.
Sophie is both real and surreal: her calm disposition is juxtaposed with overflowing, colorful Victorian garb (I’m a Lady, 2010), or she is dressed in traditional maid attire, restitching the hem of a Superman cape (They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To, 2008). Sophie is both active and passive: the static sculpture, eyes closed, is but a still in a moment of glory, wielding a larger-than-life calvary mare (The Reign, 2010) or singing to a great, anonymous orchestra (Silent Symphony, 2010).
For all of the histories of oppression Sibande’s alter ego seeks to critique, she transcends above them, reclaiming her space as a subject in both historical and contemporary narratives. Ultimately, Sophie is a celebration. Sibande says, “My work is not about complaining about Apartheid, or an invitation to feel sorry for me because I am black and my mothers were maids. It is about celebrating what we are as women in South Africa today and for us to celebrate, we need to go back, to see what are we are celebrating. To celebrate, I needed to bring this maid.”
In 2013, as a part of a new body of work entitled, Purple Must Govern, Sibande introduced the color purple as well as wild, organic, fluid movement to her signature black fiberglass sculptures. Though still political in nature (the color purple is a reference to a march that took place in Cape Town in 1989, where the police sprayed protesters with purple dye to mark them for arrest after the march), this new work was a departure (or expansion) from Sophie, asking broader questions about the dynamism of identity and performance. Sibande says, “The creatures are Sophie turned inside out. They are a look at intestines, an inspection of the mess within.This work is about deconstructing the familiar ideas built into my work. In other words, questioning what Sophie, the character, had dreamt of…In the process of letting go of older ideas of my work, I am opening doors for new challenges.”
Mary Sibande, born in Barberton, South African (1982), lives and works in Johannesburg. She obtained her Diploma in Fine Arts at the Witwatersrand Technikon (2004) and a B-Tech degree from the University of Johannesburg (2007). Her work was exhibited in the South African pavilion at the 2010 Venice Biennale, and her project "Long Live the Dead Queen" was found in murals all over the city of Johannesburg in 2010 during the FIFA World Cup.
Sibande's work has been exhibited countrywide. In 2009 she took part in the L'Exposition du Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres in Dakar, and her work was featured in the review From Pierneef to Gugulective: 1910-2010. Other galleries and events where her work has been shown include: the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town (2010); the Kiasma Museum for Contemporary Art in Helsinki, the Lyon Biënnale, the Musée d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, Paris (2013). She has been a research fellow at numerous institutions, including the Smithsonian Institute, the University of Michigan and the Ampersand Foundation.
In 2013, Sibande had an artistic residency at the MAC/VAL Museum of Modern Art in France. where she created a groundbreaking new installation entitled A reversed retrogress. scene 2. That same year, Sibande received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. Her work The Purple Shall Govern toured South Africa from Grahamstown, though Port Elizabeth to Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Potchefstroom, ending in Johannesburg in early 2014.
Largely, Sibande’s work draws inspiration from her individual experience growing up in South Africa. The artist’s focus on “the maid” is often cited as homage to her family, of which four generations of women served as domestic workers. Other family figures serve as visages in her work as well, such as sculptures akin to her father in “Lovers in Tango” (2011). Sibande has often attributed her fascination with fashion and fabric as performance to a lifelong fascination with the “Sunday special clothes” community members wore to church.
In visual arts, Sibande has referenced Juan Munoz and Yinka Shonibare as inspirations for stimulating solutions in her work. She has also listed the importance of growing up listening to Lauryn Hill.
Mary Sibande is represented by Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg, where photographs expanding on The Purple Shall Govern are on view. She has recently teamed up with Action Aid South African and the Young Urban Women Programme to raise funds and introduce art to young girls in low-income communities.
Sibande recently unveiled a new sculpture entitled The Mechanism (an enormous study of the sewing needle) for the group exhibition “A Place in Time” at Nirox Foundation Sculpture Park in Johannesburg. Her work will appear in the group show Re[as]sisting Narratives at Framer Framded in Amsterdam, opening August 28th, 2016.
Sibande has said that she wishes to expand the reach of her installations to include video work and theatre, as well as continuing in the tradition of fashion and garment-making.