Note: This guest post is written by Maria Gil Ulldemolins an artist, blogger and writer with an interest (among other things) in women artists and African art. Both interests appear on this beautifully written piece, previously published at Hand/Eye Magazine, in which she explores the work of South African artist Mary Sibande. (Full disclosure: I have known Maria for a long time, as we have spent together a large part of our lives…)
A longer version of the article, which includes and interview with Sibande, is available by clicking either here or at the image at the bottom of this post. A post which also serves to inaugurate a new section on “African art, culture and surroundings”, which can be found on the right, and where new (and some old) posts on these topics will be added.
“A-dressing History” by Maria Gil Ulldemolins
Mary Sibande, “I am an artist” (2009), Courtesy of Gallery MOMO
Cinderella’s heart raced from the excitement of the ball, from rushing out, and from the fear of being found out. She looked down at her dress, which had turned back into rags, and shut her eyes tightly to picture in her mind the beautiful ballgown she wore that evening. Her eyes fluttered open and with a resigned sigh, she headed from the kitchen back to her lonely bedroom. In another realm, in modern-day Cape Town, a young, black woman has her eyes closed. She is floating in the vapourous blue sea of her grand dress. A white, lacy parasol is held weightlessly in her hand. She is delicately carrying herself, as if only her thoughts support her. She is blissful; she is “on cloud nine.”(1) She is literally paused in time and space. You can almost hear her breathing. This woman is Sophie, a maid, but at the same time she is Mary Sibande, the artist. Cinderella’s dress turned to rags when the clock struck twelve, but did Sophie’s dress change?
What’s funny about the night is that everything is so dark–there are no shadows–but that’s when we are most aware of them. When we dream, the shadows that surround us daily disappear into the darkness, and we enter our own peculiar world. We are floating–suspended by time and space. It’s important to understand the significance of these shadows, and in Mary Sibande’s own words she offers several concepts of what they represent: blackness, womanhood, and apartheid.”(2) As well as her family’s history– of the black women who lived through colonization, apartheid, and worked as domestic servants. If shadows are produced as a reflection of the self, Sophie (Sibande’s alter-ego) can be seen as a shadow of the artist. Which is, but at the same time, isn’t ourselves.
Maybe Sibande’s shadows are reflections, but not merely in the sense of an image that is thrown on the surface, but contemplations of her circumstances and of her past. They are heavy and acknowledge the reality, the factual existence of the many women Sibande has known and the many lives she’s been linked with. In a way, she explores and projects an alternative possibility for her in these shadows.
So what we have here is an example of the extraordinary richness of lexicon. Shadows are identities (race, sex, family), projections (her other-self, desires), residues (apartheid) or reflections (ideas). Sibande created Sophie W, a shadow (her skin is always painted black) that is permanently day-dreaming, projecting more shadows as she dreams. She is like a Matryoshka doll with a nesting set of identities, realities, and desires. Sophie is then, in a way, a shadow that talks about all these themes that are also shadows themselves.
Mary Sibande, “Her Majesty Queen Sophie” (2010), Courtesy of Gallery MOMO
Sophie only exists in the realm of fiction and dreams, but how does she project more fiction into the world? In the artist’s own words, “Sophie projects herself into scenarios like a graffiti artist would tag his signature on a public wall.”(3) Her mental imaginary is cast onto walls, like silhouettes, and these projections reclaim a space that exists beyond domesticity and beyond fantasy. They speak to the viewer’s preconception of who is Sophie, “teas(ing) and test(ing) the viewer’s expectations.”(4) This dialogue extends to a time and space that exists not only the darkness of dreams, but in the clarity of the spectator’s reality. Sophie’s dreams go beyond herself as an individualized study of a bigger aspiration. South Africa has a very particular history of ambition, recovery, and improvement. Sibande is examining the “herstories” of South Africa, the experiences of women who lived under the rule of colonists, and who worked as servants.
Susan Sontag once wrote that, “In the image world, [something] has happened, and it will forever happen in that way.”(5) In this instance, she was referring to pictures of tragedies and fatalities. But what if this atemporality could also be applied here: Sophie would forever be free in these photographs. In this artwork, she allows herself to this stylized freedom. Sibande writes her statement that “many members of the South African society are not free in their minds, haunting by lingering self-doubt.”(6) The artist establishes that, “Sophie exists within this created environment, her identity is intrinsically bound by these markers that she is a maid, that her imagination is her escape.”(7) In Sibande’s own words, “If she opened her eyes, it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that. Her dress would become an ordinary maid’s uniform.”(8) She still exists within her context. If Sophie doesn’t return to the reality of working as a maid, she’d be someone else.
Sibande uses Sophie’s uniform to describe her identity in different ways– the uniform transforms to magical, flowing dresses, and Sophie-the-super-heroine appears. The magic dresses are still made with the basic blue fabric associated with the maid’s uniform: “In the garments that I have made, I take these elements to another level, by augmenting their meaning.”(9) These dresses are not practical for work. They are princess dresses with an abundance of fabric. They have a Victorian style (again, Sophie can only be Sophie in the context she belongs to), which the artist uses as “a vehicle”(10) for this stylistic game of identities. The dress becomes more voluminous depending on its particular story and the wearer’s degree of freedom. For instance, Sibande has a collection of pieces that represents her great-grandmother, her grandmother, her mother, and even herself. Each one, a step closer to the reality Sibande is living; each one a bit freer, and, consequently, more ornate (without ever forgetting the own individual stories of the members of her family she is depicting). Therefore Sophie’s imaginary uniform represents everything of who she is, and the numerous identities she plays with. The enormous dresses are a celebration of the richness of Sophie’s personality.
One wonders whether Sophie’s dress will turn to rags at midnight like Cinderella’s whose dress impressed her prince. In Sibande’s art, Sophie is her own blue prince(ss). She is her own saviour, her own hope to escape her ordinariness. Cinderella’s dress disappears because it was a favour from her fairy godmother to help her reach her destiny, but Sophie’s dress is made by herself, in her imagination. It is not a favour, but an alternative reality. Sophie does not need this dress to connect with her destiny: this dress is the destiny she travels to where ever she wants. Will Sophie’s dress disappear after midnight? No. She is the rightful wearer, owner, and maker of the dress. Sophie would not be herself without it. Shadows cannot be seen at midnight when we dream, not because they disappear, but because they swallow everything. Sophie is a shadow at midnight. Her dress is another shadow. As Sibande says, “When the dress disappears she herself will disappear.”(11) Sophie will forever continue to breathe lightly in the picture, barely holding that parasol, surrounded by blue fabric.
3 Sibande, M. “Artist Statement on the Exhibition”, available under request at Gallery Momo, Johanesburg, South Africa
4 Sibande, M. “Statement on Sophie”,
5 Sontag , S. interviewed by Chan, E. Against Postmodernism, etcetera- A Conversation with Susan Sontag, 2001, p. 7. Available at http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/text-only/issue.901/12.1chan.txt
6 Sibande, M. “Statement on Sophie”,
7 Mary Sibande, as interviewed by the author, Jun 21 2010,
8 Sibande, M. as quoted by Solomon, N. ‘”Sophie”, by Mary Sibande”, Kitsune Noir, Jun 1 2010,
9 Mary Sibande, as interviewed by the author, Jun 21 2010, see appendix
10 Mary Sibande, as interviewed by the author, Jun 21 2010, see appendix
11 Mary Sibande, as interviewed by the author, jun 21 2010, see appendix