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Mary Sibande Explores Issues of Race, Gender, and Labour Through her Artistic Alter Ego, “Sophie”

Updated: Jul 10, 2022

Mary Sibande

Mary Sibande is a South African artist, born in Barberton and based in Johannesburg who is famous for using sculpture and photography to create images of her alter ego, “Sophie”.

Sibande, who was raised by her grandmother, draws inspiration from her own childhood in South Africa. The artist's focus on "the maid" is sometimes considered as a tribute to her family, which included four generations of domestic workers.

Mary Sibande alter ego, "Sophie"

Sophie, a life-sized fiberglass sculpture is modeled after Sibande’s body and face. She is often dressed in historical attire by the artist, which initially took the form of a maid's uniform before developing into more ornate outfits.

For Sibande, the site where this history is challenged and where her imaginations might come to life is the body of the sculpture, and notably how she dresses it. She frequently employs the alias "Sophie" in her work, whose appearance served as a platform for the creation of a counter-history.

Allegory of growth" 2013 | life-size body cast. Fibreglass.

The artist stated that she gave Sophie a "Western name" as a reminder of the history in South Africa that led to Black children having Western names during a roundtable discussion for her 2019 solo exhibition, "I broke apart at the seams," she says at Somerset House, London.

Her majesty Queen Sophie 2010. Courtesy the artist.

She uses this as a medium to help showcase human nature and seek the construction of identity in the postcolonial era. Her work also addresses stereotypical presentations of black women.

My work is not about complaining about Apartheid, or an invitation to feel sorry for me because I am black and my mothers were maids. It is about celebrating what we are as women in South Africa today and for us to celebrate, we need to go back, to see what are we are celebrating. To celebrate, I needed to bring this maid.

Sibande earned a B-tech degree from the University of Johannesburg in 2007 after receiving a diploma in fine arts from the Technikon Witwatersrand in 2004.

Pick a card" by Mary Sibande.

The use of color as a symbol is powerful in Mary Sibande's works. The artist depicts Sophie as a maid, a mysterious and strong woman, and a strong priestess using the hues blue, purple, and red, respectively.

Sibande's deliberate and symbolic use of color in her artwork and Sophie's clothing ranges from the royal blue uniforms of domestic workers which represents dreams have been crushed by inequality and discrimination, to the purple hue symbolizing the fight against apartheid and the promise of equal opportunities, and the use of red symbolizing the rage and frustration of a population still seeking answers and demanding justice.

“Sophie the domestic worker" like Mary's mother and grandmother.

Throughout her career, she has exposed a variety of themes through her art, including postcolonial South Africa, gender stereotypes, and stereotypes of black women in South Africa. Her art is "about celebrating what we are as women in South Africa now," as she previously stated.

"I remember talking to my supervisor and saying, 'I want to play detective and investigate why these women in my family were all domestic workers.' I wanted to pay homage to them," Sibande tells CNN

Sibande has also been actively participating in ActionAid South Africa's and the Young Urban Women Program's fundraising efforts since 2016 to assist the creation of art education programs aimed at young girls from township communities.



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