Deconstructing Sophie

2011-09-30 10:49

Joburg artist Mary Sibande is seeking another breakthrough. Percy Mabandu talks to her about the challenges of success

‘And just when you think they’ve got as good as they can get . . .” exclaimed a bookish porter, heaping flattery on Truman Capote during a train ride to Kansas City in the late 1950s.

The American novelist had been basking in the glory of his then latest work, a novella that had apparently surpassed the brilliance of his previous creative offering.

The loaded compliment makes sense – personal standards can be hard to live up to. Hence, I remembered this historic encounter on my way to see Mary Sibande in Braamfontein.

The Joburg-based artist was a hit at this year’s Joburg Art Fair, and was the star at this year’s Venice Biennale, where her work showed in the South African pavilion.

Just like Capote, Sibande has been revelling in the success of her now-famous work – the iconic images and performative sculptures of her alter ego Sophie, a domestic worker whose uniforms Sibande has morphed into Victorian-influenced gowns.

The work has since become a ubiquitous feature in the Joburg inner city, appearing on billboards and high-rise buildings.

But there have been wary whispers in the air about her ability to create beyond her success. So we spoke about these public pressures and her latest coup – being commissioned by the Pirelli Foundation to produce new work for their Joburg
Art Fair stall.

Sibande has been thinking about breaking free of her iconic image – the black superwoman in blue and green gowns.

She says: “I’ve been telling people that Sophie will disappear. Though that figure is really important to me, I don’t want it to go stale. There is only so much I can say on her or about her.”

Perhaps the most potent attempt at a breakthrough is evident in the work she showed in Venice, the photographic versions of which hung at the Art Fair.

It is titled Lovers in Tango and finds Sibande digging into a much more emotional personal narrative.

“My work is autobiographical. So this work is about the tango or the embrace that never happened between my parents. I only met my father when I was 17 years old,” she says.

The work features a series of toy-like soldiers standing in patrol arrangement, their leading figure is leaning into an embrace with Sophie but never quite gets there as they are all frozen in time.

Sibande’s soldiers are dressed in a green combat uniform, the uniform has been typically transformed into more elaborate clothing such as Sophie’s Victorian-inspired domestic worker uniform. These soldiers stand as though they are holding guns and look ready to shoot.

However, Sibande says: “I’ve stripped the guns away because it has to look like play-play. This is because the images came out of my childhood fantasies and wonder about my father. I only saw him in three pictures, he wore army clothes.
Other stuff I heard from my grandmother and my mother, who would tell me about where he was.”

These toy-like soldier figurines are also created using casts of Sibande’s body, hence they extend the reach of her alter ego’s polemic too.

This so that the domestic worker grows beyond that church-loving maid who fantasises about doing better.

Sophie’s militant political side reflects the reality of the maids who hid their lovers or politicised relatives in the back rooms of white suburbs during apartheid.

They can even be seen as the perfect urban guerrillas. These radical roles are memorialised here with a fresh elegance.

It is, however, in the Pirelli commission that Sibande falls back on the vintage Sophie iconography. The work is focused on the theme Rubber Soul: Aesthetics and Technique in Step with Fashion.

Here Sibande has stylised the ZCC church uniform into Victorian couture too. She used fabric provided by Pirelli, along with the tyres that became the soles for her devotee’s shoes.

Sophie is shown taking the iconic leap, or jump of prayer normally done by male ZCC pilgrims.

Sibande says: “I chose ZCC also because they call themselves the soldiers of God ... and my work is moving towards patterns of discipline . . . like images of people in the army.”

She has placed her jumping devotee on a pedestal.

 “I’m fascinated by pedestals, like how all these heroes like Jan Smuts outside Parliament in Cape Town or Paul Kruger in the Pretoria city centre are placed on pedestals, literally,” she says.

In a further act of subversion, she has given Sophie the shoes that are worn only by men in that gender-controlled church.

But Sibande is quick to clear herself, saying: “I’m not against the church. I’m just interested in the garments.

“I actually have respect for the church ... though I didn’t interview any member because I wanted to retain an outsider’s view of things.”

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