Sunday, July 25, 2010
“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.