Mary Sibande – Post Apartheid Art

The Purple Shall Govern (2013). Photo: Gallery MOMO
The Purple Shall Govern (2013). Photo: Gallery MOMO

Mary Sibande is a multi-talented artist from Johannesburg. Born in 1982, the South African artist’s art consists of sculptures, photography, paintings, and design. With her creations, she depicts black South Africans in a postcolonial context. Her work often focuses on her own personal experiences and black women during apartheid.

About Mary Sibande

The artist was raised in apartheid South Africa by her grandmother. Her mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all domestic workers and inspired many of her works. Sibande initially wanted to be a fashion designer. Something that is very much present in all of her sculptures. She uses both fashion and design to tell a sad part of history beautifully.

Mary Sibande

Sophie and her inspirations

Sophie is Mary Sibande’s alter ego who tells the story of post-apartheid South Africa. A Reversed Retrogress, a tableau she created in 2013 are two mirror-image manikins with one dressed in blue and the other covered in with purple tassels. Both women look suspended in time. With this representation, she pays homage to the women in her family who were all maids from her great grandmother to her own mother. Black women were discriminated against and didn’t have a choice. 

Sophie was given this name for some specific reason as mentioned by the artist. During apartheid, it was a must for black children to have Christian names. Sophie was inspired by her great grandmother. She explains how her masters didn’t learn her African name and decided to call her “Elsie”. With Sophie, Sibande wants this part of history to stay alive, so future generations would know.

Changing colors

To not be referred to as the artist who “makes Sophie stories about domestic workers in her family”, Sibande has to change her color scheme every four years. Living Memory (2011), female figures in teal combat trousers are inspired by her father who was a soldier but the manikin has a female body. This is because everything she knew of her father during her childhood was through her mother. She was only three when her parents separated. The young artist used to be angry with her father but later understood that he had no choice to join the army. Black men in Africa were taken away to work as miners or soldiers.

Living Memory (2011). Photo: Gallery MOMO

Many of her other representations are of different colors. The use of purple represents the Purple Rain protest of 1989 in Cape Town. Anti-apartheid marchers were sprayed with purple dye so that they were visible and easier to arrest later on. 

The untold part of history

Mary Sibande’s art is very deep as it touches subjects that are very much taboo. Her works are also personal, which include members of her family that she holds close to her heart but also references the history of South Africa from the black’s perspective. 

She tells the sad story in a happier way, knowing that it won’t take away what happened to black women in the South African past but still portray the painful truth. What people want to see will depend on the viewer, some may see violence but others can see her representation of women to be dancing and being happy. 

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