The Interview – Mary Sibande: Purple shall govern

2013-07-07 14:01

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The reigning Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Visual Arts, Mary Sibande, talks purple, the end of Sophie and Lauryn Hill’s influence on her. She chats with Percy Mabandu on the back of her award and new work, which premiered in Grahamstown.

First, let’s congratulate you on being the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Visual Art. How has this title affected your practice as an artist?

Thank you for your kind words. It has been an encouraging journey.

This award has only made me realise that I need to work even harder and challenge myself further.

Is there a specific reason that you chose the colour purple as primary in your new work?

My work does not pretend to be political, but it seems by default it has a political title.

The latest body of work is an offshoot from a sculpture I made titled Sophie Ntombikayise.

This sculpture was dressed in a purple costume and its function was about taking control of identity (or my identity) through its gesture and naming.

In a way, purple for me has become about taking control of elements that were not afforded to black people in apartheid South Africa.

So, the title The Purple Shall Govern is about extending that declaration to the next level, and taking it to a performative level.

Purple for me is a colour of privilege, I am attempting to use this privilege afforded to me by those who have fought for it.

It is a reference to a march that took place in Cape Town in 1989, where the police sprayed protesters with purple dye to mark them for arrest after the march.

The slogan that emerged was that the “purple will indeed govern”.

My question is whether they will govern even though they are marked to be arrested.

How would you describe the purple seaweed-like creatures or worms that make up the jungle that swamp the human figure in your new work?

I have recently encountered Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the ‘rhizome’.

They say a rhizome has neither a beginning nor and end, but always a middle.

The philosophers speak about the idea of roots that build up a body. With this work, the ideas of violence are insinuated and yet the violated and the violator are connected.

The figures’ gestures are ambiguous in being neither violent nor defensive, in reference to Francisco Goya’s Fight with Cudgels.

The creatures are Sophie turned inside out. They are a look at intestines, an inspection of the mess within.

This work is about deconstructing the familiar ideas built into my work. In other words, questioning what Sophie, the character, had dreamt of.

The way to make sense of the dreams is to interrogate their nature, their context and how they built themselves up.

In the process of letting go of older ideas of my work, I am opening doors for new challenges.

Costumes have always fitted comfortably on the fibreglass sculpture.

This new body of work marks your break with your famous alter ego. How did you arrive at the decision to finally part ways with Sophie?

I am allowing growth to take root to explore other artistic territories.

Your identity as an artist has become synonymous with and locked up into that of the pitch-black female mannequin in outsized Victorian garb and military apparel.

Does this creatively frustrate your attempts to produce work that does not involve Sophie?

I think that an artist is someone who toys with not only the subject matter but also the creative forces.

Work is generally a frustrating process, for me it’s about exploration.

Often one arrives at the same point taking different routes.

Here, I am attempting to further the journey.

You have said the story of Sophie is the story of women in your family, including your grandmother and mother, who were domestic workers.

How does this break-up affect your relationship with that story?

I am of the mind that the truth has different interpretations depending on the context.

The idea is to replace the truth with Sophie.

In other words, I can still speak of Sophie in her absence.

The relationship continues, it’s just on a different plateau. Also, I am breaking up the concept to examine it.

In a future without Sophie and her objects, what sort of shape is your work going to take?

I will be working with installations. Working in fabric has implicated the idea of always working within the terrain of fashion.

I will not title myself a fashion designer but someone who proposes ideas of fashion within art or art and fashion collaboratively.

I am currently, among other things, working on a video piece.

There has also been a theatrical impulse in my work.

This is the direction I’m taking.

Your work has often included religious motifs, like the Apostolic blue uniform worn by Sophie, the stylised ZCC uniform you created for the Pirelli Rubber Soul Special Project at the 2011 Joburg Art Fair. How would you explain this preoccupation with religious apparel?

Faith and fashion have always been areas of interest for me.

People don’t just wear plain clothes but explore different possibilities of how and when to wear their clothes.

I am often reminded of the ‘Sunday special clothes’ one wore as a child, this idea has matured and become a standard idea at places of worship.

It is almost as if looking your best and worshipping are birds of a feather.

Ideas of gender and race seem to be also another space of exploration.

In the Pirelli work, women wearing that kind of active garment is not allowed.

The work was an attempt at subverting the image of the inactive or passive woman.

The arts and culture tastes of famous artists often tell us a lot about them. Which artists do you get excited most by – in music, theatre and the visual arts?

I grew up on Lauryn Hill, her Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album was my staple diet.

I appreciate Thandiswa Mazwai’s music too.

In visual arts, Juan Munoz was a great inspiration and, of course, Yinka Shonibare’s work stimulated some of the solutions in my work.

Much has been said about how South African artists are getting more love abroad than here at home. How would you compare your international reception with your treatment by the public here?

I have been fortunate enough to have my work appreciated by individuals who would not class themselves as art experts.

»?The Purple Shall Govern tours the country after the National Arts Festival

Sophie gets the last say

Mary Sibande’s character, Sophie, was inspired by her family’s long history of being domestic servants – her mother, grandmother and great grandmother were maids.

Her dark skin and Victorian-style gowns made her an outstanding storyteller and caught the imagination of art lovers.

“Her dress is a protest against being a maid and at the same time it is the facade that allows her fantasies to come to life,” she has been quoted as saying.

She is inspired by ZCC churches of South Africa with their distinctive blue fabrics.

Through Sophie, Sibande lived out her fashion design dream and her training in fine arts.

She has exhibited at Finland’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Brazil’s Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art and the Smithsonian in the US.

– Lesley Mofokeng

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