Mary Sibande is a multidisciplinary artist from South Africa, who has dedicated much of her creative practice to unearthing her personal, as well as cultural history. Born and raised during the last decade of the apartheid era in South Africa, her creative practice was profoundly conditioned by the important historical changes she experienced first-hand in the years prior and following the segregation of black people on behalf of the country’s white minority government. 

Governed by the theme of colour and its emotional connotations, the artist’s works have travelled through phases and continue to explore the possibilities that colour offers as an expression of both racial and emotional meaning. Through her sculptures and photography, Mary Sibande has delved into the history of her own female forebearers to bring back to the surface images of a collective history of black female bodies that was previously buried beneath layers of discrimination, unfreedom and injustice. By weaving these threads together, she has brought these women’s lost perspectives, abandoned ambitions and forgotten narratives to the present, in a way that will be able to also inform the fabric of the future.


Mary Sibande A terrible beauty is born

A terrible beauty is born, 2013 (detail) - Digital pigment print on textured archival rag with non-fugitive ink - 110 x 321.5cm. Photograph by Jurie Potgieter - Image courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery


Mary, how did your career as an artist begin and how has your environment conditioned your artwork? 

I studied at the university of Johannesburg, where I first decided to look into my personal history and understand why I am the first in my family to graduate from university. This led me to explore the history of South Africa, to see myself where I existed before my consciousness did: in this country, there were so many institutions created to limit the black body, such as slavery, colonialism, apartheid. So I imagined this body going through these phases and asked myself what it means to exist in times of freedom. This freedom was accomplished in the 1990s, when people of colour were finally allowed to vote. I remember being 11 years old, queuing with my grandmother for hours and hours, and sensing the excitement in the air: in my young age I picked up that this was an important moment. During apartheid, people didn’t talk about what was happening to black bodies in the fear that the more you knew, the more you’d get in trouble. For this reason I wanted to investigate this and my personal history. I didn’t think that this idea would become a concept I would carry within my works to this day.


Who is Sophie? How have these sculptures allowed you to engage in an exploration of your family, but particularly of your female continuum?

All the women in my family, as far as I can trace, were domestic workers. I created this avatar named Sophie, as in South Africa it was compulsory for a black child to have an African name and an English name, in order to show that one had converted to Christianity. This made me also look to my great grandmother, who was born in 1919 with two African names, but died with one African and one English name. This is why I created this avatar called Sophie, so I always have to be reminded of why I am calling her Sophie and why I am called Mary. I started to dress up as a domestic worker, posing in front of a camera and performing all the dreams my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had: the main difference however was that I could choose to do this, unlike my forebearers who had no choice. They were limited both as black bodies and as women, so they were facing this double discrimination. I could never be these women although I am them, I come from them, I look like them. This process has allowed me to understand more not only about myself, but also about my people, where I come from and what it means to be black in South Africa, particularly under institutions that didn’t allow black people to be free.


The triad of colours employed in your works, seems to echo a multiplicity of perspectives, from the past towards the future, from immanence to transcendence.

My work is separated into colours. Now that I actually have a trajectory of colours, I realise each colour had its own way of thinking: blue was about looking at the limitations of black women, particularly those in my family, and spoke about Bantu education in black communities, as a low form of knowledge to limit the educational potential of black people. The purple body of work looked more within, as a South African who is practicing and travelling the world, although women in my family could not afford to. Purple is about rebelling, looking inward, spreading as a horizon. Finally, red speaks of emotion and how crucial this is in human existence. In some way, I wanted to understand the psyche of my country: I feel like South Africa is an angry nation. Red was a way of understanding where this anger came from, almost like doing therapy. I wanted to highlight that this anger is boiling hot.


Mary Sibande In conversation with Madam CJ Walker 1

In conversation with Madame CJ Walker, 2009 - Fibreglass mannequin, cotton textile and synthetic hair embroidered on canvas - 183 x 550cm. Photograph by Eva Broekema, Collection Museum Newfields, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Image courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery


Your works in red, in particular, seem to be touching a more sacred, or mythological realm. What is the role of spirituality in your works?

Around 2008, when I was starting with my first body of work, I was in my studio and there were three Zionist churches in the neighbourhood. In the context of South Africa, these are hybrid churches, that combine Christianity and traditional African beliefs in ancestors. These churches marry two worlds and create a new ideology of worship. The only aspect I looked at was that of fashion, how people dress and what colours they use. I buy my fabrics in the places these churches buy theirs. Hence I wanted to tap into this spiritual realm through this. If you look at my figures, their eyes are always closed, tapping into a world where only your thoughts exist, you are denying reality. You are looking inwards. My work has been about dreaming, but also about praying, manifesting, wishing. And this action has carried black bodies throughout history, in the desire to be free, to do something, to be healed.


Could you tell us some more about your creative process - what is the source and process in your works?

There are a few artists I take inspiration from. Noria Mabasa, for instance, will not create something unless she has dreamt it. The notion of dreaming has been a thread throughout my work. I also draw some inspiration from Tracey Rose, an all-rounded artist whose performances are challenging history and going against the odds. Yinka Shonibare has taught me much in terms of turning to colonialism and making work and speaking about it in a way that makes us understand ourselves. If we understand ourselves, we can also understand the future. In this sense, his work gave me the foundations for marrying fashion and fine art. Since then, I have been making dresses and turning fabric into an abstract object. It’s not about fabric anymore, but about manipulating that visual reference into something else, making it into roots. All these artists have formed me into the artist that I am today. 


What is your greatest wish for these artworks in the future?

I hope to inspire a lot of women, a lot of women of colour. For me, it’s about inspiring the future, giving new artists a language to carry forward. I believe the past is always interconnected with the present, and the present is always interconnected with the future. For this reason I always like to bend time, going to the past and carrying it into the present to inspire the future. But the future is always imagined, because nobody knows what it will look like. Yet it is filled with lots of possibilities.


Mary Sibande Right Now

Right now!, 2015 - Digital pigment print on textured archival rag with non-fugitive ink - 101.2 x 235.6cm. Photograph by Jurie Potgieter, Image courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery


What is next for you, artistically?

After red, after anger, I am thinking of the colour that comes next: the colour yellow, as a symbol of calming down, resting, appeasing. In particular, I am thinking of exploring Desmond Tutu’s concept of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a term which he coined to describe post-apartheid South Africa. He used this to refer to the multiplicity of cultures, and colours, that are finally learning to live with each other after a difficult past. I thus intend to incorporate this into my future works to explore how the Rainbow Nation can help us find peace, coexistence and freedom.


What is womanhood, to you? 

Womanhood has highly inspired my artwork. The question of being a woman, for me, cannot be separated from the question of being a black woman. Being a woman is about learning from the past, about bringing all the women who existed before me to the foreground. However, it is also about exploring what it means to be a woman as an individual human being. It is a communal thing, related to gathering, belonging to a village, having the power to give birth and bring life into the world.


All images credits courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery