Mary Sibande, The Red Ventriloquist: The macLYON
For her exhibition The Red Ventriloquist at macLYON, South African artist Mary Sibande has raised sculpture and installation to a level not seen before in her work.
Over a number of years, Mary Sibande has been developing a deeply biographical and personalised combination of sculpture and installation, which has generated several characters and colours derived from the lives of the women in her family.
Through these avatars she reflects the living conditions of black South African women and their place in the complex history of a country built on racial segregation. The figure of Sophie, whom the artist presents as her alter ego, exposes the classism, the racism and the sexism that shape the lives of black women in South Africa. The story of her life, like those of her predecessors, is deeply intersectional and lies at the interface of all of those forms of inequality that impact on black women both socially and economically, despite the promises made after the end of apartheid in 1991.
The artist explains that although the conditions prevailing at the time may have given the black majority civil rights, ensuing political decisions prevented any real social and economic overhaul of the country. The situation has not improved over the years, and the resulting frustration and sense of injustice have led to forms of violence that Mary Sibande associates directly with these structural injustices.
While from a political point of view the end of apartheid is a reality and a victory, it has been widely noted that economically it is an incomplete victory. Many structural inequalities persist in a country where, in 2015, the average annual income of black families was €6,444, while it was €30,800 for white families. This gap reflects many other inequalities, for example in access to work and health insurance. 1 Reforms have enabled the emergence of a black middle-class elite, but most South Africans, especially township residents, feel a very real sense of alienation. These inequalities have been confirmed in study after study. They have been further exacerbated by the Covid crisis. This period has seen an escalation of tensions in the form of riots and looting which, beyond the political demonstrations and systemic insecurity, reflect the reality of people who can no longer afford the basic necessities. This violence, which is deeply ingrained in the lives of the disadvantaged sections of the population, has led the artist to reflect on the management of their anger.
Particularly marked by these recent events, Mary Sibande has conceived her exhibition at macLYON as a full-blown theatre of violence, in the form of a vast sculpture and sound installation. She sees it as an expression of and a response to the tensions generated and perpetuated by an inequitable situation. The artist uses colour to give tangible expression to these issues.
In her work, Mary Sibande explores the evocative, symbolic and political power of colour, alternating and overlaying various different colours like blue or purple. For some years now, red has played a major role in her sculptures and photographs. She began by using it to cover the bodies of dogs and vultures. Then it began to appear in the folds of her figures’ clothes, until eventually it completely enveloped the bodies of women who now have to be considered as High Priestesses. The “red ventriloquist’s” scarlet shades have developed into a symbol of public anger in Sibande’s work.
The exhibition at macLYON is both immersive and monumental: while voices speak out in the eleven languages of South Africa, the visitor is drawn into a beam of light that projects the outline of a dog and reveals a huge amphitheatre facing a stage.
As Mary Sibande sets her work firmly in the current history of South Africa, she opens a new chapter on the theme of channelling anger, symbolised by her use of the colour red and allegorical figures of carved dogs. This is the first time she has worked on this scale, as a fully-fledged sculptor of (hi)stories.
- Matthieu Lelièvre, Exhibition Curator
Born in 1982 in Barberton, South Africa, Mary Sibande graduated in 2007 from the University of Johannesburg, where she lives and works.
Sibande represented South Africa at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, and in 2013 she exhibited at macLYON for the 12th Biennale of Contemporary Art. In the same year she won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, part of the prize for which was a touring exhibition across South Africa. Her work is represented in the collection of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas and in many public collections around the world.
Mary Sibande has had exhibitions at leading international museums and institutions including the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, Finland; the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa; the Museum Beelden aan Zee in The Hague, The Netherlands; the Whitworth Museum in Manchester, UK; the British Museum in London, and Somerset House in London in 2020.
The artist was born at a critical time in South African history, during the transition away from apartheid. “I grew up in Barberton, a small town five hours drive east of Johannesburg. As a child I knew I was going to work in the arts. I had a lot of sketchbooks and books of collages. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a fashion designer, I was determined to do it! But when I got to university, I ended up taking art, not fashion design. That was the best decision I ever made in my life, although I didn’t know it at the time.”
Mary Sibande explored the construction of identity in South African society through an alter ego, a persona by the name of ‘Sophie’, the archetypal black maid in the apartheid era. Sophie was inspired by the artist’s own personal history, as several generations of women in her family were domestic servants. Transitioning from blue to purple to red, her works evolved in cycles of symbolic colours and she gradually dropped the figure of Sophie and her maid’s uniform.
Working with fabric is an integral part of Mary Sibande’s art. She says: “I try to explore the full potential of the cloth. I dismantle the body,