Imagining her mother – a domestic maid, dusting a gleaming ceramic “blompot” on her madam’s mantelpiece – became the cathartic access point for Mary Sibande, a Johannesburg-based artist born in Barberton, Mpumalanga. Raised by three generations of domestic workers, Sibande was the cipher for the aspirations of her maternal predecessors.
As a girl, Sibande was enthralled by what was, at that point, out of her reach – and even out of her mother’s and her grandmother’s reach. Paging through fashion magazines and flipping through television channels, she became acquainted with her own objects of desire, the “blompot” she aspired to.
Prompted by grandiose visions of designer dresses and catwalk ostentation, by the time she had finished school, Sibande applied to the University of Johannesburg’s fashion department, but was rejected. Determined to further her career, she elected to study visual arts.
During her studies, Sibande played around with representing her own objects of aspiration, where she lurked on the precipice of desire. In her development as an artist, she continuously incorporated her teenage penchant for fashion in her painting and sculpture.
Fashion inspires art
For Sibande, referencing the rudiments of fashion design becomes a vehicle that transports her characters into the imagined heart of their desire while simultaneously “celebrating womanhood”.
Out of her appreciation for fashion and her appreciation for her female relatives, grew the character of Sophie, a maid who imagines herself as the madam in lavish Victorian garb.
Sibande completed her visual art degree in 2007. Her “Sophie” caught the critical attention of independent curator, Thembinkosi Goniwe, who included her in the group exhibition 4 Woman, 4 Tales at Gallery MOMO, in Johannesburg in 2008.
This marked the start of the chain of events that propelled Sibande from academic obscurity and on to the Main programme at this year’s Festival.
Recognising her unique approach to the theme of class discrepancies that is neither filled with self-pity nor the accustomed documentation of economic hardship, Gallery MOMO approached Sibande to join their stable.
Sibande premiered with her solo show Long Live the Dead Queen, in July last year, in which she focused solely on various daydreams of Sophie, crystallised in the elaborate ball gowns patterned from the traditional maid’s uniform. Sibande’s Victorian gowns are modelled on to the life-size fibreglass figures she creates.
“By subverting the simple maid’s uniform in the creation of Sophie’s hybrid dress, it becomes the canvas for storytelling,” explains Sibande.
Festival-goers who have previously seen Long Live the Dead Queen should brace themselves for the unveiling of a new work in the Sophie series, titled Wish You Were Here.
Sibande’s work has received ample media attention and it would be interesting to see how this new work expands the imaginary narratives of Sophie. Sibande has alluded that this new addition to the show promised a consolidation of two dimensional and three-dimensional spaces.
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