A conversation with the artist Mary Sibande
Sophie is a fictitious domestic worker, created by South African artist Mary Sibande. Since she was first introduced during Sibande’s exhibition “Long live the dead queen”, Sophie has populated galleries, museums and billboards worldwide – either as a fiberglass installation or in oversized photographic prints. Until now, countless variations of Sophie have criticized the stereotypical depiction of women in South Africa. But in Sibande’s upcoming work, she is finally going to vanish.
Elisabeth Wellershaus: How did Sophie come to life?
Mary Sibande: I started her as a celebration of the women in my family, who were all maids – from my great-grandmother up to my mother. I was born in the 80s, so I had a different upbringing and a very different life compared to generations of South African women before me: I’m the first woman in my family who attended university. The issue of servitude within this family has been passed on from one generation to the next – until I came along. I try to bring in new perspectives as an artist, since I will never be a maid, yet can dress like and perform as one. In this role I continue in a line of very strong women. By trying to capture some of their experiences, Sophie was created to be the next in line.
Wellershaus: She literally represents your family?
Sibande: You can say that. But what’s more important to me about Sophie is that she encompasses desire and aspiration. The first photographic print that I did was an image of her knitting a Superman jersey. I wanted to create something that would serve as a uniform within a uniform for her, an outfit that enabled her to express her desires. Sophie’s stories are intrinsically linked to what the women in my family told me when I was young, but they also go beyond this. Most of my grandmother’s stories were about aspiration. I assumed similar circumstances for Sophie, but wanted to make sure that she went further and actually gained what she wished for. At the same time, she is still a maid, which is why the headscarf and the apron are always present.
Wellershaus: Then how does she escape her social predicament?
Sibande: Sophie’s most powerful gift is her ability to dream. She goes to work wearing her maid’s uniform. But then she closes her eyes and starts to imagine things. Through the lavishness of a magical dress that she wears underneath her apron, her dreams become reality for her and visible to us. We observe her in all kinds of unusual situations – riding a horse and becoming a national monument for example. Or entangled in a spider web made entirely out of hair. Most of those situations depict a woman overcoming the stereotypes that are usually attributed to black women, such as the culturally ambiguous topic of hair that has defined and labeled us for centuries.
Wellershaus: You have quite a poetic and subtle take on social problems. Does your work with Sophie avoid confrontation?
Sibande: Interestingly, some people in South Africa felt that Sophie was not aggressive enough. In response I can only say that our mothers really were very humble, and mostly accepting of their situation as domestic workers. Precisely those crucial circumstances in South African history – where there was a double-bind discrimination for being black and female – are the issues I wanted to address. And I consider it one of Sophie’s biggest strengths that she seems to have that specific background, yet manages to rise above it. I am driven by questions about female identity – an issue that I am also going to focus on in my upcoming work.
Wellershaus: How so?
Sibande: I have finally decided to let Sophie go before her story starts to become boring to her audiences. I don’t want her to go stale. So, in my next installation, Sophie is going to be devoured by a large purple figure. I guess that will finally be the point in my work when Sophie enters into the immediate present. It’s time for me to tell my own story, the story of a young South African woman in the here and now. My new exhibition will be called “The Purple shall govern”, which is drawn from a specific incident in our history. In the early 1980s, people were marching for equality in Cape Town. The police sprayed everyone with purple dye to better identify and arrest them. I did some research and became interested in the roles that colors have played in the history of this country. Even today we’re still so aware of color– it’s like a monster that we are too familiar with. In that respect the new work also completes a circle on a personal level: I’m going back to my very first exhibition, where I already displayed a purple figure, which represented me. “The Purple shall govern” will be the next chapter, in which I tell people about my own aspirations and desires. Especially about my anxieties as a woman: about the pressure to build a family and my particular fear of giving birth and conceiving a severely deformed child.
Wellershaus: So-called women’s issues are very prominent within the South African art scene these days. Where does your work stand in relation?
Sibande: I guess we have the desire to put women first these days. And that doesn’t mean that I’m a feminist, because I don’t like to label or box myself in. But I want to illuminate women’s needs and issues in my work. Sophie is not the only strong woman populating our art scene at the moment. It’s taken a good while, but female artists are finally being given a platform, and this is reflected in the content of many works. At this point, black women have finally reached a stage in this country where they can do whatever they want.
Mary Sibande was born in 1982 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she lives and works. She graduated with a degree in Fine Art from the University of Johannesburg. Sibande has exhibited at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, the International Black Arts Festival, Dakar, and in many other museums and festivals. She has been selected for a residency at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C and has won several awards such as the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist award.
Elisabeth Wellershaus is a freelance journalist in Berlin. She reports, among other topics, on culture and society in the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa for publications such as NZZ, taz, Kulturspiegel, FAS, and mare.