Sydney Hawkins, University of Michigan, January 21, 2021

As visitors pass by the University of Michigan Museum of Art, they’ll notice a stunning new installation on view through the front windows of the Stenn Gallery.

Facing the walkway between the museum and Tisch Hall is a Black mannequin wearing a blue maid’s uniform that transforms into the dress of a Victorian queen. The look is complete with billowing cape and dramatic train that blankets the floor of the gallery. 


The newly acquired work, titled “Sophie/Elsie,” is by contemporary South African artist Mary Sibande, who is known for her exploring themes of race, gender and labor through the use of photography and sculptures that are often animated by elaborate costumes and flowing fabrics. Its purchase was made possible by a generous donation from long-time UMMA donors Joseph (BBA ‘63) and Annette Allen.


The work is part of a series inspired by three generations of Sibande women that were employed as domestic workers in Apartheid South Africa. Her ‘Sophie’ characters, which she refers to as her alter egos, consist of life-sized fiberglass figures cast in the artist’s own likeness, each donning the blue and white dress that is synonymous with their profession. 


“Each version of ‘Sophie’ shows these domestic workers—Sibande’s ancestors—closing their eyes and imagining a different future for themselves,” said Laura De Becker, the Helmut and Candis Stern Curator of African Art and interim chief curator at UMMA. “While the Sophie at UMMA imagines herself as a Victorian queen, others in the series imagine themselves as an orchestra conductor, as a superhero or as a businesswoman.”


The version of Sophie on view at UMMA was created in 2009 in honor of Sibande’s great-grandmother, who was given the Western name Elsie because her masters couldn’t be bothered to learn her African name. 

Eventually, “Sophie/Elsie” will take center stage in the reinstallation of UMMA’s permanent African gallery, set to open in fall 2021. The reinstallation will double the size of the African gallery and will include UMMA’s historical collection of African art, as well as recent acquisitions of contemporary artworks from artists based in Africa and in the diaspora.

It is the second time Sibande’s work has been on view at UMMA. As part of a 2013 artist residency with the U-M Institute for the Humanities, Sibande installed a mural in UMMA’s commons area, where the UMMA Cafe is now located.


“U-M was an early champion of Sibande’s work, so I am excited to be able to reintroduce her to the community ahead of the opening of our newly reinstalled African gallery,” De Becker said. “It is an example of how we’ll examine the subjective ways UMMA and U-M as a whole have collected and presented art from and connected to the African diaspora.”


The reinstallation will present a wide range of artworks—from historic Yoruba and Kongo figures to other contemporary works by African and African American artists, such as Sam Nhlengenthwa, Masimba Hwati, Jon Onye Lockard and Shani Peters. 


“It will directly address the complex and difficult histories inherent to African art collections in the Global North, including their entanglements with colonization and global efforts to repatriate African artworks to the continent,” De Becker said.


The presentation will include a section of postcards from featured artists, written in their original languages alongside English translations. As part of the opening, De Becker will lead a public exploration into the provenance and potential repatriation of several works in UMMA’s collection.


Exploring similar themes, audiences can also look for another gallery reinstallation in the fall. “Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism,” was organized as a response to a recent acquisition of artist Titus Kaphar’s “Flay (James Madison).” It will reconsider one of the museum’s most prominent gallery spaces, forcing the museum to grapple with its collection of European and American art and the past prioritization of colonial voices.


While UMMA is still closed to the public, with limited access to students and MCard holders who sign up in advance for study hours, visitors can view the installation of “Sophie/Elsie” 24/7 through UMMA’s Stenn Gallery windows. 

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