22 May 2014 by Denise Slabbert

The Purple Shall Govern

Mary Sibande’s exhibition, The Purple Shall Govern, is on at the Standard Bank Gallery until 7 June. In this interview, Sibande gives insight into her alter ego, ‘Sophie’, through which she explores issues of identity, rebirth and belonging.

A terrible beauty is born. Image by Jurie Potgieter, Gallery MOMO

The elaborately costumed figure of Sophie is synonymous with the work of Mary Sibande, the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Visual Arts. It is Sophie who has given Sibande the space to explore the individual narratives of three generations of women in her family. 

Sibande’s latest exhibition, The Purple Shall Govern, sees Sophie venturing a little deeper and darker ... and you have until 7 June to see this exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg. In it, an exploration of identity, darkness and personal journeys in post-colonial South Africa are the backdrop for Sibande’s incredible creativity.

A reversed retrogress scene 1, 2013. Photo by Anthea Pokroy, Gallery MOMO A reversed retrogress scene 1, 2013. Photo by Anthea Pokroy, Gallery MOMO

We asked Sibande more about her work...

Who is Sophie?
In apartheid South Africa, black women who worked in the suburbs, or ‘ emakichini’, were christened with a second name; sometimes those names were given at birth and often it was introduced to them by employers. Sophie exemplifies those many simple names.

What is Sophie’s story?
Sophie is the manifestation of the duality of women who were matriarchs at their homes and objects of servitude at their jobs. Sophie embodies the stories of women who were denied self-determination but managed to accrue agency in their minds. They do this by transforming what in the real world looks simple into something more majestic and more magical – their uniforms transform into large growing robes that forcefully occupy space, gaining dignity that is otherwise denied.

Why the title, The Purple Shall Govern?
Sloganeering was one of the tools used to mobilise ordinary people towards achieving political and social freedom. Simple events were used as propaganda to unsettle the soil and raise the dust. A common slogan, for example ‘the people shall govern’, taken from the Freedom Charter, was reimagined when during a protest the police laced water cannons with purple dye. The marchers who were marked for arrest after the event spread the idea that the people are now purple and they shall govern.

The admiration of the purple figure, 2013. Photographed by Dean Hutton, Gallery MOMO The admiration of the purple figure, 2013. Photographed by Dean Hutton, Gallery MOMO

What inspired or influenced this work?
The event mentioned above, which took place in 1989 in Cape Town, influenced this body of work. Fear and upheaval were the other two ideas that spurred the producing of this work.

What message do you want to get across with this work?
My work attempts to activate dialogue with history and imagination. I have no preconceived ideas about the response from the viewers, but only to be a catalyst for an alternative way of seeing the world.

How has this exhibition been received?
The touring exhibition has been well received. Different media have written favourably about the growth of my artistry, and that is always something I appreciate.

What inspires you as an artist?
My world is a valuable source of inspiration. Merging the imagined world and the real world is my preoccupation as a creator. I appreciate stories, personal and common, as material to be worked with. Fashion, sculpture and history constantly ignite ideas.

What did the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for 2013 mean to you?
The Standard Bank Young Artist Award has been a great platform to showcase my work. It added value to my ongoing occupation. The media coverage has been intense but extremely fruitful for my growth. As an artist, one learns to be resourceful with little means; the Standard Bank Young Artist Award has made the little bigger.

What are the challenges facing young, upcoming artists in South Africa?
Artists have different aspirations for themselves. Some desire and work towards fame and many others work in confinement and produce iconic work. Depending on the kind of work one produces, our struggles for self-expression differ. The common denominators needed by all artists are, generally speaking, time, studio space, research time and patrons who help in making more work. Most of all, constructing a unique identity as an artist is the biggest challenge.

What do you hope to achieve with this show?
I think that the show will reflect my growth as an art maker, as a sculptor. The show will open up what may often be seen to be an insulated narrative.

What is next for Mary Sibande?
I go back to the drawing board, where I experiment with ideas, thoughts. I have the opportunity of going to a residency in Italy where I can contemplate my next move.

The Purple Shall Govern runs until 7 June 2014 at the Standard Bank Gallery, corner of Simmonds and Frederick streets, Johannesburg. The gallery is open on Mondays to Fridays, from 8am to 4.30pm, and on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm.

A terrible beauty by Cliff Shain. All images courtesy of Standard Bank Gallery A terrible beauty by Cliff Shain. All images courtesy of Standard Bank Gallery
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