Born in 1982 in Barberton, South Africa, Mary Sibande’s works feature her alter-ego, “Sophie”. Sophie’s life-size figure is cast (many times) from the body of Sibande herself.
Sophie is an imaginary character, a fictional domestic worker who finds refuge in dreams. Her dreams free her from the drudgery of a life spent cleaning other people’s homes. This imaginary life is depicted through larger-than-life sculptures and gigantic, building-sized photographs. Sophie almost always wears her “maid’s uniform” – but it’s not just any maid’s uniform. Her work clothes gradually become increasingly exaggerated, transforming Sophie into a series of epic characters: a Victorian queen riding her horse, a general leading an army, a Pope … or a conductor waving a baton.
Ironically, although they are all based on a “servant’s” work clothes, Sophie’s grand clothes would be impossible to do any kind of manual labour in. Cinderella-like, this is a marker of her “real” identity: “If she opened her eyes”, says Sibande, “it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that.”
What is this story of Sophie really about? Sibande’s concern is with the place of black
South African women and the history of their subjugation. Her own mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all worked as domestic servants: not because they wanted to (her mother longed to be a nurse), but because in their social, economic and political context, they had no choice but to take on work that kept them at the bottom of the ladder – especially in terms of power-relations.
But the character of Sophie turns the tables on that colonial “slave and master” archetype. Sibande says: “The body… particularly the skin and clothing, is the site where history
is contested and fantasies are played out.” Through art, where imagination can change reality, Sibande creates an image of (seeming) triumph over injustice, ignorance and prejudice.