Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mary Sibande: Domestic Fantasy

OVEREXPLOITED and positioned within the heart of white South Africa, domestic workers have been the ultimate victims of a skewed social and political system thus their occupation embodies the vexed racial dynamics in this country.

Therefore, the figure of the domestic worker provides the ideal vehicle to unpack the politics of Self and Other. It is this aspect that Mary Sibande meditates on in this exhibition, and while all the sociopolitical baggage attached to this character remains in attendance simply because the domestic worker is such a politicised figure, Sibande's treatment of her subject matter is unexpected and unconventional.

Her sculptures and photographic artworks depicting the domestic worker aren't by any means sociopolitical products employing, say, the documentary genre that tends to evoke pathos, anger, shame and humiliation in the viewer. Their theatrical quality confidently roots them in the realm of fantasy, thus obviating those predictable knee-jerk emotional responses which ultimately have a didactic goal and underscore the domestic workers' role as victim.

Sibande's work grapples with transcending this actuality, which not only has ramifications for the domestic worker but has significance for all of apartheid's victims, perpetrators or beneficiaries - if the domestic worker is able to liberate herself, we can all be free from the past.

It's heavy stuff and these are ideas that other cultural producers have touched on before, but Sibande's expression is exceedingly inventive and elegant; besides, her art reaches towards an unexpected conclusion.

To prevent spectators' viewing the domestic worker as a victim Sibande situates the discourse in the realm of fantasy through several visual strategies. The background of all her photographs is a neutral pale blue, denoting a photographic studio setting - the ideal environment where identities can be remoulded with the aid of lighting, costume and make-up. In this way she detaches the domestic worker from reality.

In the design of the domestic worker's get-up, Sibande activates another level of fantasy. With a bustle, pleating, organza sleeves, layers of petticoats and rouching, the domestic worker uniform is transformed from a functional everyday item into a pseudo-Victorian dress suited only to a sedentary life. In such a get-up all menial tasks would be impossible. So while her outfit fixes her in a position of servitude it can, with adaptions, precipitate her liberation.

The clothing that Sibande has developed for this exhibition is central to her expression. For it is through the uniform that she is best able to manipulate the identity of the domestic worker, transplanting her not only into a bygone era but into the persona of the white European colonial - her mistress. So while the domestic worker appears to have transcended her station, she is similarly trapped in the same paradigm that fixes her as a cleaner. Her liberation is illusionary and seemingly impossible; even when she dreams and aspires for an alternative existence, she is locked into the madam/slave dichotomy. She can't think outside of it even when she isn't limited by reality.

The other intrinsically fictional feature of the work is enacted by Sibande herself, who poses in the photographs assuming the domestic worker's identity (casts of her are used for the sculptures). In assuming both the author and subject roles in her photographic works Sibande subverts the politically loaded relationship between subject and author, which in the context of South African art has been determined along racial lines. This way Sibande has complete control over how she is represented and she creates the conditions in which fantasies can best materialise. Daydreams are the products of an inner dialogue, which explains why Sibande is pictured with closed eyes. She isn't just blocking out the present, or the elements that keep her grounded in reality that deny inventions, she is engaging in a dialogue with herself. Hence, occupying the dual role of author/ subject has significance beyond rallying against artistic conventions.

Most importantly, in dressing as a domestic worker, Sibande herself is living out a "fantasy" of sorts. Given its undesirability and the low status it signifies in our society, the domestic worker seems an unlikely figure to aspire to be, and as fantasies tend to provide individuals with a chance to aspire beyond their present circumstances, Sibande's performance presents the unthinkable.

It is also absurd given that Sibande is asm a well-educated and empowered black professional. In masquerading as a domestic worker, she denies her affluence, her status, which in post-apartheid South Africa is thought to epitomise the goals of the struggle, which were to establish a brighter future for the youth.

Sibande isn't challenging or rejecting her affluence - it is her confidence in her status that allows her to parade as a domestic worker. The domestic worker is a mask, like any other she can slip on and off at will. The ease with which she is able to do this implies that no one is defined by their appearance. In assuming the guise of this highly politicised character, Sibande is able to explore, ridicule and subvert the structures that victimised the domestic worker. It's a cathartic and subversive act.

This is a remarkable exhibition that teases the mind long after one has finished viewing it. Its boldness, both visually and conceptually, is a surprise for a young artist's first major solo exhibition. - published in The Sunday Independent, July 26, 2009

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