The Armory Show | 2023
08.09.23 - 10.09.23
The avatar, Sophie, was born from Mary Sibande’s need to embody the lived experience of her maternal ancestors — women throughout South Africa who had no choice but to put their own needs and those of their families aside to go work in the homes of the White minority. Through her own image, Sibande was able to personify the struggle of Black South Africans, using colour as a narrative signifier for the stages of
healing and the dreams of each generation. The progression from blue and green to purple and then to red weaves a universe around Sibande’s own narrative, expanding beyond her own experience to encapsulate the dominant mood of a nation actively working to overcome their oppressive history. While Sophie appears frozen in time, with eyes closed as if in her own dream world, her story is far from static. Her expressive gestures, elaborate attire and succinct use of symbols and colour propel her into a continuous and evolving dialogue around the one constant throughout her oeuvre — Blackness.
The first stage of Sibande’s story sets the scene in the Blue phase as her avatar, Sophie, is adorned in a blue gown uncannily familiar to the average South African. This gown in fashioned after two opposing references — the striking blue, as well as the white headscarf and apron are immediately recognisable references to the uniforms worn by domestic workers in White homes around South Africa, while the elaborate gown design harks back to the Victorian era. With eyes closed, this iteration of Sophie dreams of transcending the conditions of material poverty brought on and continuing beyond the Apartheid era. The Manifestation (2022) is one of the clearest portrayals of these aspirations, as Sophie is seen knitting a garment that is instantly recognisable to most as a Superman suit. Her demeanour appears solemn and demure through poise and professionality, but her actions show that she has dreams of more. Sophie’s dreams are rich with aspirations, not limited to her individual but shared by her community, and as she travels deep within herself her humanity is revealed.
After the Blue and Green phases, where Sibande is looking back at a shared history, comes the Purple phase. Here Sophie is transformed into the Purple Figure, as she embodies the turbulent transition of power to the Anti-Apartheid movement. Purple, which historically symbolises majesty, spiritual attainment and power, also holds direct references within South Africa’s specific history. In 1989 an estimated 30 000 people, marching for peace, were sprayed with purple dye in order to later identify them and arrest them. This tactic, intended to aid authorities in capturing the protesters, brought about a new symbol of resistance, as those marked with the dye were celebrated with the term “The purple shall govern” — a play on the first clause of the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC). In her Purple phase, Sophie shifts her focus inwards.This phase is one of transition, as she salutes those who fought for her freedom while looking to the future and wondering what will come. In Wielding (2022) Sophie brandishes tarot cards, looking to the sky for answers while maintaining her shut eyes. She is caught in this limbo between the oppression of her past and the hope of her future, but we also see the beginnings of the red stage seeping into her garb, indicating the next phase: Anger.
The Red stage, the most recent and most loaded, symbolises the anger and frustration over the failure to deliver on the justice that was promised. Like many South Africans, the optimism that Sibande felt at the turn of political rule has faded into a lingering despondency and hopelessness. Like the heart, Sophie takes on the role of the vessel of emotion — love, impatience, tolerance, passion and, strongest and most generative, anger. This anger is double-edged, as Sibande recognises its value and its threat and strives to understand it. The Red takes on the personification of this enquiry, weighing up the value of this righteous anger, which was rife during the Apartheid years and never allowed to be acted upon, with the absolutist danger of burning everything down in order to rebuild. We see this quite clearly in Good is Bad and Bad is Good (2022), as Sophie stands balancing on the tip of one foot, wielding a heart on strings in one hand and a shepherd’s crook in the other. While she is dressed in battle gear, ready to fight, her situation is perilous, as she risks everything in the hopes of achieving the future that was promised.