Mary Sibande: See through the Red Mist

Lumumba Mthembu, Mail & Guardian, July 8, 2022



Sindiwe Magona’s Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night has been voted one of Africa’s 100 best books. 

The short story collection is divided into two parts, the first of which is called “Women at Work”. Nine short stories make up the first half of the collection, which opens with a story titled Leaving. 

Its plot is simple — an unnamed villager decides to leave her dependents in the middle of the night to seek work in the suburban kitchens of Mthatha. 

To stay in the village with “two cups of mielie meal, two breasts that were drying up, an old hen that had stopped laying eggs, an empty kraal … and five children who daily needed feeding”, would result in the family starving. 

Without an income from her husband, who has been swallowed whole by the gold mines of Johannesburg, she reasons that, “the only way she could be a mother to her children … would be to leave them”.

 

I put down Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night to attend Mary Sibande’s Let Me Tell You About Red exhibition opening at Durban Art Gallery (which debuted last month), where the dots between my choice of literature and the art exhibition connect. 


Sibande is descended from three generations of “maids”, or “kitchen girls” as they were called during apartheid, when masters and madams did not bother with African names. For ease of pronunciation for her white employers, Sibande’s great-grandmother became “Elsie”, just as Magona’s Atini becomes “Tiny” in Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night.

Could it be that the same factors that propelled Magona’s protagonist into a life of servitude in Leaving motivated Sibande’s great-grandmother to do the same? To be a mother sometimes means looking after the families of the privileged to earn the pittance that gives your own family a chance at survival. 

Sibande broke the cycle of subjugation by becoming the first in her family to receive tertiary education. Her intention was to study fashion design but, ultimately, art became the medium through which she would reckon with the past.  

Sophie is the domestic-worker alter ego created by Sibande in honour of the women in her family who did this job. She has been central to Sibande’s work since 2008, enabling her to prevent the story of erasure experienced by black women “from going stale”, she explains.



Although Sophie’s is a sad story, Sibande is at pains to tell it in a happy way: “My work is not about complaining about apartheid … It is about celebrating what we, as women, are in South Africa today and, for us to celebrate, we need to go back … To celebrate, I needed to bring this maid.” 

Sibande’s artistic practice attempts to reconcile the events of a harrowing national narrative. She points out that “South African artists have a lot to dismantle. We ask ourselves, ‘Why did apartheid happen? Where am I after apartheid? What does it mean to be a black woman in South Africa today?’ These questions become bricks in a house that artists build around themselves.”

The house Sibande built has its foundation in the series Long Live the Dead Queen, which comprises several sculptures made between 2008 and 2010. These feature Sophie in different poses, always with her eyes closed, in various versions of a blue Victorian dress. A headdress and apron accessorise the grand dress with the humble trademarks of the “maid’s uniform”. 

A violet petticoat underneath the blue dress foreshadows the metamorphosis to come in The Purple Shall Govern, the 2013 exhibition which plays on the 1955 Freedom Charter promise that “the people shall govern”. The use of the colour purple references the protesters who were spray-painted that hue by the police, for later identification and arrest, during  anti-apartheid protests in the late 1980s. 

In this series, Sophie is unshackled from servitude by creatures to whom she gives birth and who — in turn — give her rebirth. A “terrible beauty/purple figure” emerges from the tendrils of the Non-Winged Ceiling Beings to stand in place of the erstwhile Sophie, bonnet and apron flung off. Tim Leibbrandt was correct when he said in a 2014 review “this exhibition is only a prologue to something larger”.

 

Sibande’s third instalment in the tricolour Sophie series Let Me Tell You About Red is on at the Durban Art Gallery. Having personified the bruising of blue and purple,

Sibande’s most recent large-scale installations now connote in scarlet. According to the exhibition statement, red represents the impotent rage felt by many South Africans at democracy’s failure to improve the appalling living conditions of the majority, as well as the ongoing poverty and festering social, economic and racial divisions. 

The artist explains that, although the end of apartheid gave the black majority civil rights, ensuing political decisions prevented any real socioeconomic overhaul. The resulting frustration has led to violence, which Sibande associates directly with structural injustice. Furthermore, 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.

Exhibition curator at the MacLyon gallery,  in France, Matthieu Lelièvre, notes that “scarlet shades have developed into a symbol of public anger in Sibande’s work”. They first appeared in the folds of her figures’ clothes, then covered the bodies of dogs and vultures. Eventually “they completely enveloped the bodies of women who now have to be considered as High Priestesses”, writes Lelièvre. Sibande uses colour to give tangible expression to the tension perpetuated by an inequitable situation.

Tensions abound as I stand among the dogs and vultures of Let Me Tell You About Red. The canine minions of the former dispensation are now at the beck and call of Sibande’s high priestess. Although the hounds don’t resemble the German shepherds notorious for sinking their teeth into protesters, they remind me of Brutus, the three-headed dog in Jane Taylor’s play Ubu and the Truth Commission, in texture and head shape. Tenuous as the link may be, it supports the notion of the dogs as enforcers. 

Are the vultures, too, under the spell of Sibande’s high priestess? Or do they pick the bones of the fallen at random? The priestess figure may well be a wartime consigliere, there to guide as is suggested by the shepherd’s staff, and sacrifice — from the heart she raises to the sky — as she sees fit. 

In Nguni languages, the heart is the house of all emotion and, by extension, the locus of anger. Given the reference to public anger in the exhibition statement, I assume the war that is waged is one for economic freedom on behalf of the majority of South Africans.

The exhibition forces me to reflect on the benign white consumption of artistic expressions of black anger in a gallery. It seems the finger of accusation points above the heads of privileged viewers who hide under the blanket of alliance. The High Priestess’s dogs of war maraud in the colours of the new South Africa, reminding me that a reckoning waits at the end of this rainbow.   

On the colour wheel, it is easy to transition from blue to purple to red, but the evolution of the Sophie/Purple/Priestess-figure shows significant levels of construction, destruction and reconstruction. Over the course of multiple exhibitions, spanning a decade and a half, her body is dismantled, and the full potential of cloth explored, as the artist expresses her penchant for fashion design. The doek is off; let fabric reign.



Let Me Tell You About Red runs at the Durban Art Gallery until 30 September.

Sindiwe Magona’s Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night has been voted one of Africa’s 100 best books. The short story collection is divided into two parts, the first of which is called “Women at Work”. Nine short stories make up the first half of the collection, which opens with a story titled Leaving

Its plot is simple – an unnamed villager decides to leave her dependents in the middle of the night to seek work in the suburban kitchens eMthatha. To stay in the village with “[t]wo cups of mielie meal, two breasts that were drying up, an old hen that had stopped laying eggs, an empty kraal…and five children who daily needed feeding”, would result in the entire family’s starvation. Without an income from a husband that has been swallowed whole by the gold mines of Johannesburg, she reasons that, “The only way she could be a mother to her children…would be to leave them.”

I put down Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night to attend Mary Sibande’s exhibition opening at the Durban Art Gallery (which debuted in June), where the dots between my choice of literature, and the fine art exhibition connect. Mary Sibande is descended of three generations of “maids” or “kitchen girls” as they were called during apartheid, when masters and madams did not bother with African names. For ease of pronunciation for the white employers, Sibande’s great-grandmother became “Elsie”, just as Magona’s Atini becomes “Tiny” when we learn her name in Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night.

Could it be that the same factors that propel Magona’s protagonist into a life of servitude in Leaving, motivated Sibande’s great-grandmother to do the same? To be a mother, I am learning, sometimes means looking after the families of the privileged to earn the pittance that gives one’s own family a chance at survival. Sibande broke the cycle of subjection by becoming the first in her family to access tertiary education. Her intention was to study fashion design, but art ultimately became the medium through which she would reckon with the past.  

Sophie is the domestic-worker alter ego created by Sibande in honour of the women in her family who served in this vocation. She has been central to Sibande’s work since 2008, enabling the artist to prevent the story of erasure experienced by black women “from going stale”, she explains.

Although Sophie’s is a sad story, Sibande is at pains to tell it in a happy way: “My work is not about complaining about apartheid…It is about celebrating what we as women are in South Africa today, and for us to celebrate we need to go back…To celebrate, I needed to bring this maid.” 

Sibande’s artistic practice attempts to reconcile the events of a harrowing national narrative, as she points out that, “South African artists have a lot to dismantle. We ask ourselves, ‘Why did apartheid happen? Where am I after apartheid? What does it mean to be a black woman in South Africa today? These questions become bricks in a house that artists build around themselves.”

The house Sibande built has its foundation in the series Long Live the Dead Queen, which comprises several sculptures made between 2008 and 2010. These feature Sophie in different poses, always with her eyes closed, in various versions of a blue Victorian dress: a colour associated with workwear in South Africa. A headdress and apron accessorise the grand dress with the humble trademarks of the “maid’s” uniform. 


A violet petticoat underneath the blue dress foreshadows the metamorphosis to come in The Purple Shall Govern: the 2013 exhibition which plays on the 1955 Freedom Charter promise that, “The people shall govern.” The use of the colour purple references the protesters who were spray painted that hue by the police (for later identification and arrest) during a 1989 anti-apartheid march. 

Sophie is unshackled from servitude in this series by creatures to whom she gives birth, and who – in turn – give her rebirth. A “terrible beauty/purple figure” emerges from the tendrils of the “Non-Winged ceiling beings” to stand in place of the erstwhile Sophie, bonnet and apron flung off. Tim Leibbrandt is correct in his 2014 review “that this exhibition is only a prologue to something larger”.

Currently on exhibit at the Durban Art Gallery is Sibande’s third instalment of the tricolour Sophie series: Let me tell you about Red. Having personified the bruising of blue and purple, Sibande’s most recent large-scale installations now connote in scarlet. According to the exhibition statement, red represents the impotent rage felt by many South Africans at democracy’s failure to improve the appalling living conditions of the majority of its citizens, as well as the ongoing poverty and festering social, economic and racial divisions. 

The artist explains that, although conditions prevailing at the end of apartheid gave the black majority civil rights, ensuing political decisions prevented any real socio-economic overhaul of the country. The resulting frustration has led to violence that Sibande associates directly with structural injustice. Furthermore, 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.

Exhibition Curator at macLYON, Matthieu Lelièvre, notes that “scarlet shades have developed into a symbol of public anger in Sibande’s work”. They first appeared in the folds of her figures’ clothes, then covered the bodies of dogs and vultures; eventually “they completely enveloped the bodies of women who now have to be considered as High Priestesses”, writes Lelièvre. Sibande uses colour to give tangible expression to the tensions perpetuated by an inequitable situation.

Tensions abound as I stand among the dogs and vultures of Let me tell you about Red. The canine minions of the former dispensation now serve at the beck and call of Sibande’s High Priestess. Although the hounds resemble not the German Shepherds notorious for sinking their teeth into protesters, they remind me of Brutus: the three-headed dog of Jane Taylor’s play in Ubu and the Truth Commission, in texture and head shape. Tenuous the link may be, but it supports the thesis of the dogs as enforcers. 


Are the vultures, too, under the spell of Sibande’s High Priestess? Or do they pick the bones of the fallen at random. The Priestess-figure may well be a wartime consigliere, there to guide as is suggested by the shepherd’s staff, and sacrifice – from the heart she raises to the sky – as she sees fit. The heart also carries the connotation in Nguni languages of being the house of all emotion, and by extension: the locus of anger. Given the reference to public anger in the exhibition statement, I assume the war that is waged is one for economic freedom on behalf of the majority of South Africans.


The exhibition forces me to reflect on the benign white consumption of artistic expressions of black anger in both public and blue-chip gallery spaces. It seems the finger of accusation points above the heads of privileged attendees who hide them under the blanket of allyship. The High Priestess’s dogs of war maraud in the colours of the new South Africa, reminding me that at the end of this rainbow awaits a reckoning.   


On the colour wheel, it is easy to transition from blue to purple to red, but the evolution of the Sophie/Purple/Priestess-figure shows significant levels of construction, destruction and reconstruction. Over the course of multiple exhibitions spanning a decade and a half, her body is dismantled and the full potential of cloth explored, as the artist expresses her penchant for fashion design. The doek is off; let fabric reign.Let me tell you about Red runs until September 30 at the Durban Art Gallery.

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