Sunday, July 25, 2010

Interview with Mary Sibande

IT IS MARY Sibande’s hands that I first study when she sits down. Weeks earlier I had been transfixed by the large hands on her alter ego, Sophie, a fibreglass replica of Sibande, in the artwork I Decline, I Refuse to Recline (2010), on show at the SPace exhibition. I thought that the large hands that reach out, in desperation, towards some invisible object, might have been part of a deliberate ploy: perhaps a way of underscoring Sophie’s avaricious pursuit of material comforts, her determination to survive and her status as a worker. It made sense; for Sibande the figure of the domestic worker isn’t a disempowered character at all, but a strong, powerful figure.
“I wanted to celebrate them (domestic workers). I think that they are heroes. It was so hard to put food on the table,” observes Sibande, looking down at her hands, which don’t look like the oversized appendages that I had seen on her sculpture.
Sophie might be a replica of Sibande’s body and Sibande might parade as this character in photographs, but their personae are nothing alike. Sibande is obviously more animated. She is garrulous, upbeat and her chatter is punctuated with laughter. And every so often she makes a poignant remark about her practice – although she confesses she isn’t good at articulating the ideas that shape her art.
“I am a sculptor, I like to make stuff. I know that I can’t talk about my work. I find it difficult to express what I want to say. Even when I speak in Swazi I have the same difficulties. It probably doesn’t help that I went to an Afrikaans school.”

Sibande was born in 1982 and grew up in Barberton, Mpumalanga, where she attended said Afrikaans school. Though she received a better education than other children in the township where she lived it kept her at a remove, forcing her into solitude.
“People thought that I thought I was better than them because I went to this other
school,” she recalls.
Sibande moved to Joburg in 2001 to study fashion; she only signed up for a degree in fine art at the University of Johannesburg because she missed the application date for the fashion course. But her fascination for fashion and clothing didn’t end; she has channelled it into her art. Sophie’s dress is the most expressive element of Sibande’s art and the fibreglass sculptures resemble mannequins. In this way Sibande is recasting, reinventing and challenging the fashion ideal.

It may seem incongruous for a young well-educated black woman to want to dress up and pose as a domestic worker; it defeats the aims and ambitious of the generation who fought for equality. Sibande suggests that by portraying a domestic worker she is stripping back the privileges that she has enjoyed and positioning herself in the long line of domestic workers from which she descends: since her great grandmother, all the women in her family have been more or less trapped by servitude.
“I wanted to put myself among these women, these maids. I am making a work out of their work,” she comments.
Sibande’s reverence for domestic workers manifests in her rendering of this figure. By situating Sophie in the realm of fantasy, by dressing her an elaborate pseudo-Victorian costume she does not emerge as a pitiful character but one with a degree of agency. It’s a twist on the conventional manner in which this persona has been cast in the public realm; under-paid and subject to the whims of fussy white madams, the domestic worker is more commonly viewed as a powerless and exploited worker who occupies the bottom echelon of our society. In other words the domestic worker was the ultimate victim of the skewed social and political system that once governed this country.

At first I am surprised by Sibande’s reverence for the domestic worker but soon realise that claiming her history and celebrating these women’s strength rather than their powerlessness is an empowering act that allows her to reconcile with her heritage in a positive way. In retaining the connection to her past in her art Sibande also establishes the fact that there was no clean break between apartheid and post-apartheid society. We remain innately tied to the past even though there have been radical sociopolitical shifts. This paradoxical condition is expressed through Sophie’s hybrid domestic-worker-cum-Victorian dress, which conjures a colonial authority.
“I didn’t want to move Sophie away from being a maid. As much as she is moving forward she is also going back.”
In this way Sophie’s liberation is illusionary.
“Whatever she does she will always be a maid.”
This seems to imply that not only are domestic workers – Sibande never uses this politically correct term – unable to fully elevate themselves beyond their station, but that this heritage of servitude weighs heavily on the present (and the past).

Sibande’s work seems to have hit a nerve. Since her first solo exhibition, Long Live the Dead Queen, at Momo Gallery in Joburg last year, no large-scale exhibition has been complete without a sculpture of Sophie by this 28-year-old. Interest in her work isn’t just limited to the art world, either. It has featured in mainstream newspapers and on TV and radio stations. This month it will be displayed on billboards around Joburg’s inner city.
“If people are not raised by a domestic worker then their mother or auntie has worked as one. This is why Sophie always hits home, she always evokes the familiar.”
Nevertheless Sibande has become frustrated with the one-dimensional readings of her work. To address, or perhaps to even circumvent this in the work I Decline, I Refuse to Recline, Sophie is concealed by a multilayered skirt that suggests she has a complex character that cannot be determined by her appearance.
“A lot of people think they understand what Sophie is about because she is a maid and then they stop (to think further). I want to create layers so that people have to unpack (her significance) further. I don’t want to give a lot away instantly. I wanted to create another dialogue around Sophie.”

To say that the figure of Sophie is a leitmotif in Sibande’s art is an understatement; to date Sibande’s art has been completely centred on her alter ego. For this reason it is impossible to quiz Sibande on her career and life without encountering the origins of this enigmatic character that has turned Sibande into an overnight success – well, as much success as one could hope to enjoy in South Africa’s limited and perhaps parochial art world. Sibande giggles with delight when I suggest she has been an overnight success, but she points out that no one paid any attention to her first artworks. These were pairs of distorted, embellished shoes fashioned from velvet and other luxurious fabrics, which showed at the now defunct Gordart Gallery in Melville in 2006. These artworks indirectly marked the birth of Sibande’s alter ego.
“I first made the objects that Sophie aspired to owning: beautiful shoes,” recalls Sibande. Of course, these were no ordinary shoes but heavily decorated items that existed beyond the realm of functional footwear.
 “They couldn’t be worn, they were completely impractical.”
To truly aspire beyond her station Sophie needed to desire objects that had no practical function, as this is a marker of true wealth. Owning such objects could enable her physical and social transcendence – not only over poverty but servitude. Sibande could identify with Sophie’s dreams. So it was right from the beginning of Sophie’s evolution that Sibande recognised elements of Sophie in herself. It seemed natural, therefore, that when it came to bringing Sophie to life, Sibande would model the domestic worker character on herself.
“I had to make Sophie real. I wanted to feel her presence. The best person to use as a subject was me. I realised that Sophie was me. I aspire to having all these beautiful
things. When I was growing up I didn’t have lots of beautiful things that other kids had. It’s not that I grew up poor but other kids always seemed to be 10 steps ahead of me.”

Wealth and an excessive display of it has informed the character of Sophie’s outfits. The exaggerated silhouettes and stylistic elements of Sophie’s dresses – in I Decline, I Refuse to Recline Sophie’s dress is part of a chaise longue – are intended to evoke the manner in which South Africa’s rising black middle class express their status through clothing and other accoutrements.
“You don’t know when to stop, you keep wanting more. You see a lot of rich people in the township wearing a lot of bling. They have 10 rings on their fingers, wear the latest wigs. It’s excessive. It’s as if they don’t know how to stop making themselves more beautiful. You think the more you have the more you are getting there.”

This excessive display of wealth is a means of shrugging off old identities, escaping a heritage of servitude and asserting the affluent “master” role. Sibande expresses this idea through Sophie’s hybrid costume, which parades elements of servitude and wealth.
“Sophie is trying so hard to move forward, she has to have more. If she wants shoes they must fill the entire room.”
The element of excess in Sophie’s dress has become more pronounced over time as Sibande has been developing the story of her alter ego.
“I want to see how far I can take her – not just conceptually but in terms of the size and scale of the dress.”
Sibande envisions a point where the dress will completely dominate the work, eventually fill a room or become an architectural structure. While there is still room for Sophie and the narrative attached to her to develop further, Sibande acknowledges that her alter ego cannot be the source of her art for much longer.
“I can only say so much with her. Sooner or later it will become too easy (to make work with her). I am preparing for her death. The work with the horse (The Reign) was the first step towards her death.”

Sibande may make jokes about the annihilation of her alter ego.
 “She was dead before I even started,” she says referring to the title of the exhibition Long Live the Dead Queen. But she admits to sharing a bizarre connection with this character.
“When I get into her costume and pose for the photographs I really feel like I am her. It’s a bit twisted I know, but I become Sophie.” - published in The Sunday Independent, June 20, 2010.

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