Stitching together a new identity

By Theresa Smith Time of article published Jun 11, 2013

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With gnarly, mismatched limbs and uneven eyes, the sinewy monsters making up Mary Sibande’s work – The Purple Shall Govern – are menacing on the face of it.

Octopus-like limbs undulate and writhe along walls and floors, but up close in her workshop, if you are fortunate enough to get close to the purple cloth monsters, you realise they are soft, almost toy-like.

I caught up to Sibande in a workroom at the Museum for Contemporary Art of Val du Marne, Paris, where she was working on creating more purple creatures.

She lets me pick up a monster, but admonishes that the exhibition she is planning for Grahamstown will not be a touch display, but a decidedly hands-off experience.

“It feels comfortable for me to see an image when I’m explain- ing,” she says as she looks for a sketch of the work she has prepared for the National Arts Festival (NAF) as the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Arts.

Her Doornfontein workshop was already awash in finished purple props, ready to be packed up to be transported to Grahamstown.

What she was creating in the workshop at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Paris is an offshoot of the purple work – as artist in residence for the South Africa in France season she is preparing for an exhibition in October, jointly with the other South African artist in residence, Michael Subotzky.

Her Sophie work – specifically the Wish You Were Here exhibit from 2010 – will be part of an exhibition at La Maison Rouge, Paris between June 19 and September 22, which showcases the work of Jozi artists, again as part of the season.

The work she has prepared for the NAF – three new prints, an installation of two figures and an installation of creatures – has its roots in her earlier work with the four Sophie figures.

The four female figures repre- sented the women in her life, her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and herself, but herself as influenced by these women, and Sibande felt that it was time to move on with her work and delve more into who she is when not drawing on that influence.

“Yes, it’s important to tell the stories of my grandmother and my mother. But, Sophie is kind of limiting me because I can’t bring my own thoughts into it. Yes, she’s in my image, but I can’t distort my grandmother’s image and stories…

“The purple is me in South Africa, now.”

Drawing on the purple colour that her Sophie figure wore in previous work, she takes it further by referencing the purple water used in the cannons to mark people in the 1980 riots.

“Colour as a visual language… I was attracted to the idea that colour can mean a lot, like widows wearing black. Purple was the colour of royalty because it was an expensive dye.

“In South Africa colour places you, it tells you who you should be,” said Sibande.

Her Sophie character was dressed in extravagant purple, so now she forms a bridge between the old work and the new.

“Her job there in the installation is to introduce the purple figure. From there, no more Sophie.”

Sibande tries to explain this new Purple Shall Govern phase with her desire to make things, to experi- ment: “I want to create things I’ve never seen before. The creatures resemble some creatures, but not quite. They live, but you can’t place them. I realise now that you cannot make things you’ve never seen before.”

Sibande is toying with the idea of somehow linking the two gallery spaces – Gallery in the Round and the Monument Gallery – in Grahamstown, but it’s just an idea she’s playing with. Because she can.

For the Joburg artist the most liberating part about stepping away from the Sophie character is being able to drop the responsibility of being respectful of the stories of those who went before.

“I don’t have to tell someone else’s story, I can just make art. That’s my story.”

She is aware that she cannot escape history or what and who influence her, but travelling to various places as an artist in residence (like Italy, German, Switzerland and the US) has opened her eyes to the way people out there work, and the concept of art for the sake of art as well as telling your own story.

Sibande’s artistic story started in biology class at high school, when she would finish her friends’ drawings of cells and plants in exchange for lunch or pocket money.

“It was more because I liked it, the drawing,” she said.

She never seriously entertained the notion of art as a career, though she did consider fashion design as a viable option when she began designing dresses for friends. She applied too late for that though, and ended up studying fine arts at the University of Johannesburg

She thinks it turned out for the best, though.

Sibande doesn’t think working in other countries as an artist in residence has changed her too much, but it has allowed her to look at her work from a different angle.

“The thing about Europe is that their structures are so stable, everything has been done before. In Europe, there’s no room for growth for the artists.

“I was speaking to a French artist and he wants to come to Joburg, because of the energy.

“‘In Europe, it’s stale’, he said, ‘because there’s nothing else to do here’.

“I suspect that if you want to make it as a contemporary artist here in Europe, it’s hard, you have to go out there and shock. They’re all relying on and celebrating the old masters, you can hardly hear the contemporary artists.”

• The National Arts Festival runs from June 27 to July 7 in Grahamstown. For more information, see:

• The South Africa in France season is on until the end of the year. Please see for programme of events featuring almost 1 000 South Africa artists.

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