I Came Apart at the Seamhttps://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/mary-sibande-i-came-apart-at-the-seams follows the transformative journey of Sibande’s avatar, Sophie. Taking form as a series of colourful human-scale sculptures modelled on Sibande herself, Sophie transgresses from her humble beginnings as a domestic housemaid into myriad empowered characters, transcending racial bias and marginalisation. Iterations of these striking installations are also captured in vibrant large-scale photography, documenting Sophie’s journey. Through these works, Sibande pays homage to the generations of women in her family who worked as domestic labourers. In sharing their previously untold stories, Sibande challenges stereotypical depictions of Black women in post-apartheid South Africa throughout history and today.
A formal innovator, Sibande, like her alter egos, has had to fight her way out of straitjackets. “I was known as an artist who makes Sophie stories about domestic workers in her family,” she says. “So in ‘A Reversed Retrogress’, these purple creatures — vines, tubes, snakes — dismantled that body of work. I wanted to start from scratch and make abstract forms and shapes. Every four years, I have to change colour scheme.”
Sibande was born in 1982 in Barberton, a “tiny town” in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province created by the 1880s gold rush. Her mother, who worked as a domestic help while still at school, moved to Johannesburg to look for work, leaving her pre-school daughter with her parents. Though they visited each other, Sibande didn’t join her mother in Johannesburg until 2001, when she went to university. Yet although so affected by apartheid, “I wasn’t aware of it at all, of a monster lingering,” she says. “People didn’t talk about what was happening, or teach their kids, thinking it would get them into trouble.”
It was only after 1997, when Sibande attended a formerly whites-only school, that she “learned about apartheid — the way we were bullied by teachers . . . No matter how much you studied, you never got good marks.”
Her early ambition was to be a fashion designer before fine art captivated her. Influenced by the silhouettes of the African American artist Kara Walker, “the body became a canvas where I was manipulating the fabric,” she says. She had her first solo show at Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg in 2009, and her avatar Sophie was born with the series “Long Live the Dead Queen” (2008-13). “I thought, these women are tired — they’ve been used for generations. So I started becoming them as Sophie.” “They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To” (2008) is a photograph of the artist as her grandmother making a Superman jersey. “I regard these women as superheroes,” she explains. Their eyes are closed to shut out the viewer, “denying reality and coyly turning inwards”.
Mary Sibande’s I Came Apart at the Seams continues at Somerset House through 05 Jan 2020 (Free.)