03rd October 2019 – 05th January 2020
Mary Sibande, Living Memory, 2011 Archival Digital Print 126 x 87 cm. Image taken from Somerset House's website.
Mary Sibande is described as "one of South Africa’s most prominent contemporary artists", and right now she has her first solo exhibition in the UK at Somerset House. In her exhibition I Came Apart at the Seams, we are invited to see her striking photographs, sculptures and installations. These works reimagine and rewrite South African history of Apartheid and post-Apartheid, through the gaze of South African women. We journey through this history guided by Sibande's alter ego Sophie, modelled on Sibande herself. We see Sophie in her many manifestations, embodying powerful political and personal statements of resistance.
We get to see Sophie's journey through three of Sibande's series seen together for the first time; Long Live the Dead Queen (2009-13), The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17) and her new series I Came Apart at the Seams (2019-). In these artworks, we are invited to explore the history, cultural and collective memory of South Africa. The three rooms also mark Sophie's transformations and South African history through blue, purple and red colours.
The first room, containing the series of artworks Long Live the Dead Queen (2009-13), sees Sophie for the first time as Sibande, reimagining her family's legacy through her. Sophie is clothed in a blue domestic worker's uniform, a reflection of Sibande's great-grandmother, grandmother and mother’s past as they were forced to the realm of domestic labor. Sibande reimagines her family's past through altering the blue uniform and permeates it with Victorian motifs. These motifs introduce a new dimension to Sophie's history as she wears something previously denied to her. Her body becomes a sight for freedom, transformation and yet the presence of a haunting past remains strong.
Through costume and gesture, the body becomes a canvas used by Sibande to rewrite the history of these women. It provides significance to their protests and offers a critique of stereotypical depictions of South African women. All manifestations of Sophie have their eyes shut. This small yet hugely impactful gesture hints at the inner work and rewriting that is being done by these women; through their inner knowing it feels like they take back some control over their narrative, while not allowing the audience to infiltrate.
Mary Sibande, I Put A Spell On Me, 2009 Archival Digital Print 90 x 60 cm. Image taken from Somerset House's website.
Sophie's transformation is then shown in the large-scale sculpture, A Reversed Retrogress, Scene 1 (2013). Two women, or versions of Sophie, stand facing each other and appear to be frozen in a dance. One is in the previously seen domestic uniform wearing a maid's cap, apron and Victorian-style blue dress. The other figure wears a dress from which long ropes of lilac, mauve, and purple fall, covering her head as well as the floor. Octopus-like creatures made out of cloth with button eyes, float above and around her. Sophie's dresses reconnect with her inner worlds, vast and varied, though they all share a sense of power as they demand space.
In the second room, we transition from blue to purple, as seen in the artist's series titled The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17). Purple is used to represent resistance as it remembers the Purple Rain protest of 1989 in Cape Town, where police sprayed anti-apartheid protestors with purple dye. The title also refers to the political slogan 'The purple shall govern'. An installation shows a larger than life transformation of Sophie as we see her wrapped in purple tentacles, which spread out to the wall, looking like tree roots. This version of Sophie evokes the supernatural power and forces of nature.
In the third room, Sophie transitions into The Red Figure, as she expresses collective anger at the persistent social inequality that remains post-apartheid. The Red Figure, however, is much more than 'a destructive force'; she is actually portrayed as a healer and priestess. She is powerful, imagined as the healing space needed between the past and present. Anger becomes a productive and creative force that connects cultural memory to present-day action. The Red Figure appears to possess agency that stems from a clear purpose and knowledge of cultural memory.
I Came Apart at the Seams is a must-see for anyone interested in exploring the history and/or art of South Africa. Sibande uses the personal narrative of Sophie and her many transformations to defy stereotypes of the South African woman and reveal the complexities of womanhood in an oppressive social structure. Sibande sees these women as having personal power that stems from the sharpness of their inner gaze. These physically manifest inner forces of imagination and creation, brought to life in the various forms Sophie's avatar takes on.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor