Colour is the visual perception of electromagnetic radiation within the visible spectrum. Intangible palette of our reality, colours fill our existence, feed our imagination, strengthen our memory, symbolise our fights and convey meanings which penetrate the social substratum, creating history, culture and tradition.
Mary Sibande (b. 1982), the South African artist chosen for the solo show at this year’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, uses colour to talk about the history and the evolution of the pre and post-colonial feminine condition in South Africa and not only.
Born and raised in Johannesburg, the artist transcends the life experience of the women in her family, telling her story through her avatar Sophie. By embodying and narrating the many stories that Sibande wants to shed a light on, Sophie speaks of femininity, blackness, injustice and revolution in South Africa.
Very excited about meeting Sibande, and now used to the selection of the prestigious fair, it’s a real pleasure to let the artist walk us through the sculptures and the images of her first UK solo show titled I Came Apart At The Seams. On display are the works of three series which characterised her career, from the beginning, eleven years ago, to this day.
Using colour as a tool, Sibande outlines the ideas behind the retrospective taking us through the works of three series marked by the chromatic change of Sophie’s costumes. From the royal blue uniforms of domestic workers whose dreams are shattered by inequality and discrimination, to the purple phase representing the fight against apartheid and the promise of equal opportunities, to the red symbolising the anger and frustration of a population that is still waiting for answers and demanding justice.
Sibande started her artistic journey—as well as her blue period called Long Live The Dead Queen—in 2008. After graduating she started to investigate the history of her family, especially the history of her female offspring, in order to find out the reason why they were all domestic workers. “I had to look at the history of South Africa and that’s where it all started. Of course these women didn’t choose to be domestic workers, it was part of the law for black women: either you were a nurse or mostly just hard labour,” she told us. Sophie was born from this analysis as an answer to the artist’s need to represent her ancestors’ story and life experience through a character that could embody and speak about the South African struggle. That’s when colours came in, the artist explained: “Colour is very important in South Africa, because when I speak of colour, I’m speaking about race and I wanted to highlight that idea. How do I actually speak of race without saying it? I thought: colour. Each colour has a significant meaning to it. In South Africa the manual labour guys wear blue, the ones digging in the streets, or factory workers, they wear blue overall and it’s actually called royal blue. So I took the same blue.”
One of the first things one notices when looking at her works is that Sophie’s eyes are always closed. In this way, Sophie can dream, she can imagine an alternative world where she’s in control of her life, a world where she can simply exist, deny reality and ignore the observer’s curious gaze.
As we walk through the first room, we come across A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (2013), a piece of work which acts as a link between two of Sibande’s chromatic and symbolic worlds. After four years exploring royal blue, and after processing the public’s reactions at her exhibitions, Sibande realised that “Sophie is not the woman that cleans your house if you’re white. She was your aunt, she was your grandmother, she was your neighbour, everybody thinks they know who Sophie is. So I needed to let go and to try and make other works, other objects.” That’s how the artist started making the fabric creatures which led her to the purple period. “I remember I was on my way to Brazil because I had a show there in 2012. I was researching information on Brazil and I came across Capoeira. I thought it was amazing, so I took that idea and I thought I needed to bring back the figure that I was dismantling. And she came back as purple. However, before I started making other works I thought it would be amazing to have the blue, the previous body of work, and the new body of work facing each other. It was the same character but she had now become another person in a way” she told us. Sibande is talking about A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (2013), a piece of work in motion in which the two avatars—the blue one and the purple one—face each other. By moving around the sculptures, the observer sees them either fighting, dancing, or hugging according to the observation point.
Leaving behind us A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (2013), They Don’t Make Them Like They Used to (2008), Put a Spell on Me (2009) and Living Memory (2011), we enter the purple room. If the blue palette of Long Live The Dead Queen (2008-2013) represented the beginning of the apartheid, the purple palette of the second series symbolises its fall, says the artist. “In South Africa there were a lot of marches to actually dismantle the apartheid system. There was a march in 1989 and the apartheid police sprayed the marchers with purple dye, which is very difficult to take off the skin. The idea was to mark them and arrest them afterwards, so they went house to house to arrest all the people who had purple dye on them. Apartheid as a system has been doing that for half a century: marking people and boxing people; you can’t go there, you can’t be there at that time, you need a letter from your master if you are over there et cetera.”
Through the colour purple, Sibande shifts the focus from the women in her family to herself, wondering “where am I among these women?” and feeling the need to start a new personal and artistic chapter which would speak of how she sees herself in the world and how she interacts with it. It is no coincidence that Sophie is completely transformed in The Purple Shall Reign. She has now reimagined herself as “The Purple Figure” who embodies the suffering and eventual transition to power of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. As a matter of fact, the series’ title is inspired by the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC), as well as by the aforementioned march remembered as The Purple Forest.
As we look at the artist’s creatures spread like roots, entangling throughout the whole perimeter of the room in the work A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 2 (2013), we realise that we’re about to enter the red room and that two new chromatic worlds—purple and red—are combined. Moving closer to Right Now! (2015), Sibande reveals that she made this piece while she was seven months pregnant and, like all parents-to-be, she used to obsess over the news, trying to do something to make the world a better place for her son. Thus, she started thinking about the feeling of anger and about the hellhounds, because in Zulu—as well as in many other languages— when someone is angry they become “a red dog,” she explains.
As she wanted to dedicate this new series to the legacy of apartheid, the artist shifted the focus again: from Sophie—who is now transformed in “The Red Figure” and has her face covered—to the emotions which couldn’t be represented with other colours.
In these works, titled In The Midst of Chaos There Is Also Opportunity, Sophie is a vessel of the suffering and the anger of the South African population, and of the current socio-political context. “In South Africa violence is always around the corner, it is always lurking. I feel like South Africans are angry, there’s something that they’re not happy with and a lot of people need answers. During the apartheid there were training camps outside of South Africa and—especially the MK—they were training young people to fight back and take back the country. When Mandela came out of jail he said ‘No fighting,’ but people had spent years learning how to fight. Funny enough, most of them are old now, but I feel the body always remembers and there should have been a let out—as much as no one wants any war because the first people who will actually get the brunt of it is women and kids—because this anger was kept and suppressed and now it is bursting in certain areas.”
Recent news stories confirm Sibande’s argument. As in the rest of the world, in recent years South Africa has seen the rise of women’s movements uniting to fight violence, patriarchy and their collateral effects. However, acts of violence against women seem to have increased. In Sibande’s opinion this is due to the repercussions of apartheid on families, as entire generations of men have been taken away from their households. “The black female body has experienced violence for centuries to this day. Black men are supposed to be protecting them, but they’re absent. Growing up, I was very angry at my father because he left when I was three to join the army (one of the few jobs available back then) and he disappeared. In college I started reading about the history of South Africa and that’s when I forgave him: all these men were taken away from their families to build the city or to dig for gold, especially in Johannesburg. That was the rise of the matriarchy. So a lot of men grew up without seeing any father figure that could guide them into manhood; and I understand why: it was part of the apartheid system and it’s not just in South Africa, it’s around the world where the black body exists. I actually forgave my father, it wasn’t his fault, it was the system, he had to be in the system,” she told us.
Even though Sibande thinks her political work through art is just a drop in the ocean, as a woman and an artist, it is fundamental for her to understand how achieve self-determination. Through the creation of her avatar Sophie, a clear example of empowerment, Sibande sends a clear message which echoes from South Africa to the rest of the world.
I CAME APART AT THE SEAMS
03 Oct 2019 – 05 Jan 2020
Mon, Tue, Sat & Sun 10.00-18.00
This post is also available in: it