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Mary Sibande: Challenging the Imposed Domestication of the Black Woman

The liberating power that art holds is not to be underestimated. Art is able to speak for groups of people unable to do so themselves while still infiltrating spaces of perceived privilege. The connectivity to both spaces that art forms maintain act as a stepping stone for awareness about the challenges faced by marginalised members of any society. This sense of awareness beckons accountability from anyone who has the power to assist, although it is not always acted upon.

Artists in Africa have had the ability to transcend the limitations of a tough upbringing in order to convey important narratives. The masterful use of colour, texture, 3D sculpture and theme, results in the unravelling of traditional approaches toward viewing societal ills and clears the floor for sobering realisations thereof. A female artist intent on using artistic compositions to liberate unexplored patterns of thought, is South African artist Mary Sibande.

According to Sibande’s about page on her website, she was born in Barberton, South Africa in 1982 and is currently based in Johannesburg. She has obtained her honours degree at the University of Johannesburg in 2007 after completing her diploma for fine arts at the University of the Witwatersand in 2004. She has represented South Africa at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. Sibande’s artworks are well respected across the globe being displayed in the UK, The USA, Brazil, France and the Netherlands.

She is the 2018-2019 Virginia C. Gildersleeve Professor at Barnard College at the Columbia University. In addition, Mary has been the recipient of several residencies and fellowships, including the Smithsonian Fellowship in Washington DC, the Ampersand Foundation Fellowship in New York
and the University of Michigan Fellowship.

Paraphrasing from Sibande’s website, Sibande’s work makes consideration for race and labour in South Africa however most notable for enthusiasts following her works is her creation of an alter-ego, a response to the histories of black women. Sophie is imagined in many of her installations that comments on the black woman’s body and how it was used as a component of labour imposed by Apartheid structures. As Sibande focuses on the influence of labour, Sophie is commonly clothed in victorian domestic clothing, however these depictions are not passive.

Sibande’s most current work sees Sophie as High Priestess which interweaves biblical references with the great power and pride that Africans wield when they are able to express their traditional practices. The wonder of healing and strength is embodied in this work as Sophie makes use of supernatural forces to be reimagined in a position of power even as she is juxtaposed between black women as domestic machines versus black women as matriarchal heroes exercising ancestrally inspired agency.

Through her art and embodiment of a female body, to comment on the struggles of black women, Sibande is able to confront the dysfunctions of societies even in their current era. As her works have made their way into exhibitions in the very spaces that colonial impositions were imagined, Sibande is able to echo the painful past of women unable to physically object for themselves either due to their expiration on earth or their saturation with the inherited class position dealt to them.

However muffled, stifled or purposefully ignored, black women are not voiceless and as one speaks, many are evoked. This concept relates to the toll of millions of black women being reduced to their labour output, worldwide yet artworks such as Sibande’s seek to destabilise this power imbalance and reinstate to the black priestess all that she deserves. Representation speaks volumes as the scapegoating on a lack of awareness is not a reliable excuse any longer. However silent and inept the viewers of Sibande’s works may feel to interpret what stands before them will be reparations for the hundreds of years of silence forced upon black women.

Author: leahmareewilson

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