One of South Africa’s most innovative artists, Mary Sibande is an astute interrogator of the intersections of race, gender and labour in post-Apartheid society. In the centre of her work is Sophie, her alter-ego, who is attired in various uniforms worn by maids. Sophie’s clothing transforms in colour and style—going from blue to purple to red—from the unadorned dresses of black women in servitude to the lively, elaborate gowns of Victorian European royalty to the habits of high priestesses.
Through her sculptures, Sibande—who was born in 1982 in Barberton, and now lives and works in Johannesburg—retells the story of her own family. Domestic work had been imposed upon her grandmother and mother by the discriminatory state and she was the first one at home to achieve academic success, obtaining a Diploma in Fine Arts at the Witwatersrand Technikon in 2004 and an Honours Degree from the University of Johannesburg in 2007.
More broadly, by elevating their status, Sibande emancipates all black women who have been oppressed by power structures beyond their control, reclaiming the dignity that they were denied for long. The personas that she reveals in her fantastical creations are complex in their beauty, disrupting the stereotypical depictions of African females. Disconnected from the weight of history and Western imperialism, these incarnations are totally free and can continue to evolve.
Sibande mentions on her website that in her newest work, we witness Sophie as the High Priestess becoming the space between two realms; between the past and future, between what has been and what could be—she is fleeting, a personification of mystery and spirit which is unknown to the rational world. In this work, Sibande offers insight into the past, present and future, interpreting biblical and philosophical texts on wisdom into personal visions and prophecy. The Priestess represents magic and possibility through ancient cultural practices associated with sorcery whose traditions continue into the present day. Most importantly, she attempts to exploit supernatural forces by summoning the spiritual and medicinal role inherent to magic and its associated rituals, gestures and languages.
When Nelson Mandela was released, the artist was 11. She has said: “We’d been brought up with the attitude that things were the way they were and we should just deal with it. If our mothers questioned things, they were thrown in jail. But suddenly we were able to question things. Part of what I’m doing is celebrating questioning.”
Mary Sibande has exhibited the world over in internationally leading museums. She represented South Africa at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. She is the recipient of several awards namely, the 2017 Smithsonian National Museum of African Arts Award, University of Johannesburg’s Alumni Dignitas Award in 2014 and the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Arts. She is the 2018-2019 Virginia C. Gildersleeve Professor at Barnard College at the Columbia University. In addition, she has been the recipient of several residencies and fellowships, including the
Smithsonian Fellowship in Washington DC, the Ampersand Foundation Fellowship in New York and the University of Michigan Fellowship.
In 2019, Sibande presented her first UK solo exhibition of new works, titled I came apart at the seams, at Somerset House in London, UK. The exhibition opened in collaboration with 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Her works were included in the 14th Curitiba Biennale in Curitiba, Brazil as well as the 2019 Havana Biennale in Havana, Cuba.
Mary Sibande is represented by SMAC Gallery (Cape Town/Johannesburg/Stellenbosch).