Sophie comes to Joburg, art city

21 July 2010

Johannesburg residents and visitors can participate in artist Mary Sibande’s latest fantasy by taking a trip through the inner city, where massive building wraps depicting a Victorian maid named Sophie are transforming the city’s skyscrapers. The ultimate aim of the project: to turn the city itself into an art gallery.

Sibande’s work, which portrays different generations of her family as maids, is a fantasy of Victorian fluffiness in royal blue dress with puckered sleeves, offset with pure white apron and doek. The richness of the image is a way of escaping from the real world for the maid Sophie.

Sibande is overwhelmed by the choice of her work for the project. “I haven’t the words for it,” she says. “It is beyond exciting”.

Sibande has been producing three-dimensional portrayals of Sophie for the past four years, and was chosen to have her works, in massively enlarged prints, emblazoned on 19 buildings in the inner city. By this weekend, 13 works will be up, and by mid-August all 19 will be on buildings across the city.

Joburg Art City

Eight years ago, the city of Johannesburg was plastered with some 35 blown-up artworks, displayed as massive murals, in a project called Joburg Art City. In August 2002, mobile phone company Cell C commissioned 35 artists to produce art for the city’s buildings. Each work had to include a C shape and to include the words “for the city”.

The only work that remains of this project, entitled Joburg Man, has been moved to a building in Newtown. The artwork shows a large man in work gear, striding across a busy intersection from a photograph of early Johannesburg. He is described by the artists, Arlene Amaler-Raviv and Dale Ydelman, as “an icon of contemporary man in a free South Africa”.

The Sophie project, says Lesley Perkes of AAW Art Project Management, is an embellishment of the Cell C project, with the aim of making the city a gallery, also to be called Joburg Art City.

“We want the city to be known internationally as an art gallery. We want international artists to be queuing up to have their works put on buildings in the city,” says Perkes, adding that this is a “world-first coup for Joburg”.

Perkes was involved in the Cell C project, and says a valuable lesson was learnt from that project. “The individual works were fantastic, but they had no conversation with one another.”

But one artwork – Joburg Man – stood out because it was large and people could recognise and understand the image presented, says Perkes.

So Sibande’s work was chosen because the works speak to one another – there is a theme running throughout them, and that theme is Sophie.

“We needed a strong, contemporary artist, a brilliant young artist. When we saw her work, we knew it was right,” says Perkes. She made the decision together with gallery owner Monna Mokoena of Gallery Momo.

“I am tremendously pleased to see Mary literally making it this big,” says Mokoena. “She is one of our most talented young practitioners, celebrated here and abroad, and now we have a democratic exhibition where people who don’t hang out in galleries can enjoy her work.”

“There are not many young black women working in three-dimensional, mixed media,” says Perkes, adding that the quality of the dresses in the orginal artworks is superb – they are “very carefully crafted, and painstakingly put together”.

“Her work celebrates the real mothers of the nation.”

Eight years

Perkes has been keen to get this project off the ground for the past eight years, but although many promises of funding were offered, the money didn’t materialise. Last year she applied for lottery money, and this year R5.8-million was granted.

“To have the funding to compete with the commercial world is a triumph of the imagination and shows that the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund is seriously committed to making a significant contribution to contemporary art and especially to public art in South Africa,” says Perkes.

“I feel like I’m dreaming – I can’t believe it is actually happening.”

First solo exhibition

The 28-year-old Sibande lives in downtown Johannesburg, in a trendy refurbishment of a building called August House, a base for several Joburg artists. She has a Fine Arts degree from the University of Johannesburg, and held her first solo exhibition in 2006, at the Godart Gallery in Melville. This was followed by two subsequent exhibitions: at Gallery Momo in 2009, and at the Grahamstown Festival this year.

She has exhibited in around a dozen group exhibitions, since 2005, and has participated in four residencies – in Paris, Basel in Switzerland, New York, and Sylt in Germany.

Her life-size Sophie figure, always a very dark-skinned woman modelled on herself, is enveloped in many metres of fabric, a comment on stereotypical depictions of black women in South Africa society. The figures are made of resin and black-painted fibreglass, dressed in typical Victorian style, with bustle and pleats.

“My interests in not in looking at the negatives of being a domestic worker, specifically in current post-apartheid South Africa, but rather the humanity and commonalities of people despite the boxes we find ourselves in,” says Sibande.

Alter-ego

She sees Sophie as her alter-ego, while at the same time giving expression to her family history. Her great grandmother was a maid, created as Sophie-Elsie. Her grandmother is portrayed as Sophie-Merica. Her mother, Sophie-Velucia, although a maid as a teenager, broke the pattern and became a hairdresser. Sibande has depicted herself as Sophie-Ntombikayise, the artist as a domestic worker.

“Adopting a new position as artist, yet celebrating the women in my family, this figure represents my appreciation and acknowledgement of the hardships borne by my family and countless others in South Africa.”

The dress or uniform envelopes the lower body of Sophie in flounces of fabric, creating “an impossible monster that wants to consume the body”.

As Sophie has developed, the artworks have taken on different poses and titles: They don’t make them like they used to; I’m a lady; Caught up in the rapture; I put a spell on me; The wait seems to go on forever; Her Majesty, Queen Sophie; and I have not, I have.

A different pose

Each Sophie figure is depicted in a different pose, but all have closed eyes, part of the fantasy of escaping the drudgery of maid’s work, the dress turning into “a superhero’s outfit, transformations which allow her to express her desires and inner longings”. Those longings involve transporting herself to other places beyond the realities of domestic duties.

“My interest is not in looking at the negatives of being a domestic worker, specifically in current post-apartheid South Africa, but rather the humanity and commonalities of people despite the boxes we find ourselves in.”

Sibande hopes to highlight the individuality behind the maid’s uniform, “… the individuality that years of stereotypes have hidden and even eroded.”

Joburg Art Fair

Sibande’s work appeared at both last year’s and this year’s Joburg Art Fair. This year, Sophie appeared sitting on a rearing bronze horse, making a striking figure, in a work called The Reign. It shows the maid Sophie in charge – sitting confidently astride a large stallion, in an almost warlike pose.

One of her works appeared in the “Space: Currencies in Contemporary Art” exhibition at Museum Africa, sponsored by the city, on for the duration of the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

Steven Sack, director of the arts, culture and heritage department, expresses support for the project and the choice of artist. “Her work is very appropriate, she is a good choice.

“Her work is full of play and fantasy and imagination, and the titles of the works are very whimsical,” says Sack. “The work humanises our tough and rough society. I hope the citizens of Joburg notice and are engaged and moved by them.”

Source: City of Johannesburg