TORRE DI PORTA NUOVA, ARSENALE NUOVISSIMO
3 JUNE > 27 NOVEMBER
by:Andrea Wiarda May 26, 2011
Notes from Mary Sibande: In a wide ranging conversation and series of e-mail exchanges this spring between the artist Mary Sibande and Andrea Wiarda, the artist discussed her background, the genesis of Sophie, the protagonist who appears in much of her work, and the power of imagination. The following is an account of that exchange.
Mary Sibande’s contribution to the exhibition Desire at the 2011 South African Pavilion in Venice consists of two new works: …of Prosperity (2011) is a single sculpture of a black woman dressed in a blue and orange costume; the other, Lovers in Tango (2011), is an army of 26 life-size sculptures lined up in three squadrons, each two rows of four figures, with the remaining two facing each other at one end of the formation.
Sibande is a young woman born in 1982 in Barberton, a gold mining town in the north-east of South Africa, raised there and, later, in Johannesburg. She has lived, for most of her life, in a ‘post-apartheid’ democratic republic. Part of a younger generation of artists shaped by a climate of forgiveness, democracy, multi-culturalism and equality, her work explores issues that arise from South Africa’s colonial past and its coming to terms with the consequences of a society scarred by exploitation and apartheid. Sibande’s deliberate focus on what constructs and signifies identity in the complex society from which she stems evolves from a specifically personal, even domestic, context.
Her work evokes an older generation of artists who question identity using the specific human figure and how it is significantly represented in a ‘post-liberation’ situation. Think of Tracey Rose inserting an Africanised form of feminism into her work, challenging South African history and the masculine voices of history. Or, consider Kara Walker’s large confrontational tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes; Cindy Sherman’s extensive series of photographic impersonations of a wide variety of women; and the reading Yinka Shonibare takes on the post-colonial relationship between Europe and Africa through his headless dummies in ‘Africanised’ clothing.
It is, however, Sibande’s thorough exploration of her personal history — of where she comes from — and her consequent use of a character named ‘Sophie’ as her protagonist, that renders the work especially accurate and intense. It also contains the optimism of this younger generation of South African artists, or as Sibande states: “My choice of neutral background is testament to a desire to choose my own future and yet reflect on my personal history.”
The works presented in Venice are a continuation of these explorations and of the pivotal character elaborated throughout Sibande’s practice: Sophie. Sophie is a persona conceived as a domestic worker, a maid. However, rather than bluntly emphasizing a negative image of the domestic worker or the black woman under colonial rule, Sophie is a complex and multifaceted figure who emerged out of the artist’s family’s linear inheritance of servitude (her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all domestic workers). Simultaneously, she embodies all black domestic workers at once, carrying the weight of the long years of South Africa’s colonial history. Sophie features in Sibande’s work as the character through which the artist delves into history, psychology and contemporary South African society.
Sophie emerged for the first time, as an idea, an imagination or fantasy of a maid. Sibande, who grew up in an all female family, remembers her mother and grandmother speaking about the things they wished they could have, but didn’t. She made a series of paintings in cameo-shaped and sized frames, entitled My Madam’s Things (2006), depicting “what the maid would like: the possible objects of desire.” She later elaborated the series on larger canvasses, retaining the oval shape of the cameo to include shoe portraits or densely textured affluent dresses. An encounter with The Last Conversation Piece (1994-95), a work by self-proclaimed ‘storyteller’ and artist Juan Munoz, then inspired Sibande to physically create Sophie and her dresses, and to mould her after her own physical appearance. She painted Sophie entirely in bold black, “representing the shadow that follows me throughout life — neither positive nor negative, but a simple fact of my life and evidence of the impossible life that I may have lead.”
Through Sophie’s manifold ‘impersonations’ — of a variety of historical figures, including the artist’s female ancestors — Sibande questions and challenges assumptions concerning belonging, class, race, gender, sexuality and religion specifically with regards to the position of women, black women, the context from which she stems and refers to first and foremost. This opens up the possibility for a whole range of references to the (dis-) empowerment of black women, the power of fantasy and imagination.
Sophie first appeared, physically, in a series of life-size sculptures and photographic prints, Long Live The Dead Queen (2009), of which the artist says: “It’s a collection of fantasies and imagined narratives evolving around a maid, Sophie. My interest is in the humanity and commonalities of people despite the boxes we find ourselves in.” The figure is cast off the artist’s own body in fibreglass and silicone — the same material used to make shop window mannequins. She wears decisively brightly coloured and extravagant Victorian costumes handmade mainly out of the blue fabric typical of domestic workers’ uniforms and workmen’s overalls in South Africa.
Sibande locates the construction of identity — whether enforced or chosen, real or desired — in what covers the body: “The modern fabric I used for Sophie’s dresses has been moulded into many forms that are combined with Victorian references, making the pieces completely ‘foreign’ but definitively Sophie’s own,” Sibande says. Sibande considers the body, skin and clothing the site where history may be contested, where identity is expressed or enforced, and where fantasies are played out. “By subverting and complicating the simple maid’s uniform into the creation of Sophie’s hybrid dress she/it becomes the canvas for storytelling.” It was both the high fashion she encountered in magazines and the stiff ‘uniforms’ (of the same fabric as the domestic workers’ dresses) worn by Zionist churchgoers that informed the artist’s sensibility towards the relationship between identity, ethnic and cultural history, and, desire and fantasy.
“Sophie is always in a state of transforming herself in that she can go beyond the ordinary and what is expected of being a maid,” Sibande explains. “The atmosphere in which Sophie is represented is always one that she aspires to and seeks for, with her eyes closed, refusing the limitations of her reality and venturing into another realm in which her fantasies materialise.”
In Venice we encounter a Sophie slightly different than her predecessors (…of Prosperity, 2011). Standing firmly on her two feet, her back straightened and her arms hanging loosely by her side, she wears an enormous billowing blue and orange coloured dress consisting of over 100 hexagonal shapes tiled together; a giant deflated beehive from which Sophie solely stands out. The artist’s grandmother, who as the matriarch of the family is often sought for advice and guidance, inspired the work, with the beehive dress immediately evoking the protagonist as the queen bee — perhaps fantasizing about what it would be like to have created a large colony of workers around her? It was in fact the behaviour of queen bees that Sibande was drawn to: as the singular figure and largest of all bees in a swarm, the queen bee keeps the community together by emitting ‘pheromones’, a bee perfume that all bees in the hive can sense. Notably, the bee colony consists mainly of females, the queen and the workers; the drone male bees don’t work, but hang around for a while to mate and are then evicted, playing no part in the swarm’s life, but for reproduction. Both the beehive, gender situation and the colour orange, complementing the blue hexagons, point to aspects of South African colonial history. Dutch merchants often included ‘orange’ when naming places and areas in South Africa. The merchants account for yet another long history, that of fatherless families: men were taken away by the colonizers to work as slave labourers.
Lovers in Tango (2011), Sibande’s other work in Venice, follows through on this argument. It takes both Sophie’s character and the artist’s explorations to another level in terms of scale and content. The cluster of 26 sculptures neatly organised with military precision points to the (non-) relationship between the artist’s parents. It focuses on how her own identity was shaped by it, or rather influenced by her own imagination of the relationship. All the figures are rendered from the same cast as Sophie, thus bearing the artist’s face and gender; all are black, too, and almost appear as shadows.
Sibande’s father, a member of the South African National Defence Force, wasn’t around when she was growing up; she met him for the first time when she was 16. He existed only in five photographs she had of him, as an image of a figure posed in uniform with a heavy machine gun. Hence the toy-soldier motif in the work, especially evident with the soldiers in their typical pose – yet they are without weapons, lacking in power. In fact it is only the soldier element in the work that represents Sibande’s father; the rest is informed by the stories and ideas of the women in her family, which is why ‘he’ takes on a female form. His presence, however, makes the figure of Sophie more androgynous and adds a certain masculinity that was previously absent in her character.
The soldiers’ uniforms recall aspects touched upon in Sibande’s older works, those of religion and fashion. Rather than reproducing the image in the photographs, the artist designed new uniforms to dress the toy soldiers, enforcing her idea of the work of art as a space for ‘fantasy’. She also chose a different green for the soldiers’ clothes: the shade associated with the hybrid Zionist Church, where Christianity and African ancestor-worship go hand in hand. The churchgoers call themselves ‘soldiers of God’, wearing starched uniform-like dresses made of the same blue-collar fabric.
The two solitary figures at the top of the regiment represent Sibande’s parents; their gestures and stances refer to tango movements. However, romance, passion or movement is deliberately denied in the work through the exaggerated spacing between them: the two lovers are too far apart to tango, they remain still, blocked in their dramatically intentional poses. Furthermore, in the tango dance the male should be in the lead, a concept that is subverted by the reappearance of Sophie representing the figure of the artist’s mother, who is actually orchestrating the entire performance.
Lovers in Tango is the temporary culmination of a young but impressive body of work, where Sophie’s character matures and develops with the artist’s growing investigations of her ‘self’ and of what she (had) imagined. She addresses significant (often marginalised) themes of identity, gender, race, sexuality and religion, which are elaborated through the figure of Sophie embodying domesticity, intimacy, desire and the power of imagination. Sibande eloquently interweaves layer after layer of autobiographical references, personal memory and significant historical detail into splendour of reality.
It is exactly through this complex methodology that the artist manages to circumnavigate clichés and stereotypical representations: her characters are all true — to themselves, and to the artist as she is working to come to grips with the fundamental questions of her own time.
“Art demands dialogue,” Sibande says. She intends to share that dialogue with her audience when inquiring: “What shapes us, what do we allow to shape us and where are we in this process? Are we born of situations or do we shape our circumstances by our focus, our chosen myths and stories?”
“The work is also a fantasy space.” Yes, and isn’t fantasy, longing and desire, as humanly real as anything else?