South African artist Mary Sibande was born in 1982, inheriting the weight of a family history defined by three generations of domestic servitude. Growing up in Barberton, Mpumalanga, she entered adulthood in the long and lingering shadow of post-Apartheid South Africa, and graduated in 2007 with a degree in visual art from the University of Johannesburg.
Within this wide wake of postcolonialism, Sibande boldly set out to craft a hybrid view of all that had come before combined with a future vision of the self. Like other artists of her generation, Sibande resides in the past, present, and future, understanding the complexity of these profound seismic cultural shifts. Her work is less about a clear trajectory than about what remains to be seen, manifested, or realized.
Sibande’s immense, costumed, sculptural figures—representative of the women in her family and herself—seem to hold court, enveloping the room. With them, Sibande constructs fantastical visual narratives, offering a stage for inquiry and further examination of ongoing questions about race, gender, and class.
In their yards of pleats, folds, and billowing skirts, the figures suggest some kind of magic, as if through some potion, some alchemy, they’ve grown to three times their original size. They are emergent and empowered, dwarfing us. Transformative, her figures change from maid to queen to gladiator before our eyes. In her photographs, Sibande as model takes on the personas of her sculptures, morphing from human form to statue, like a reverse Pygmalion.
In contrast to this magical realism, Sibande intentionally exaggerates the painted blackness of the mannequin, referencing the daunting gravity of cultural heritage and how it inevitably continues to define identity regardless of one’s awareness, resilience, or resolve.
And yet, from the extraordinary expanse of Sibande’s imagination, her characters and stories seem to rise above it all. It is this suspension of disbelief—to suggest these solidly anchored figures might take flight, become airborne—that offers perhaps the greatest momentary relief, maybe even ecstasy.
Still, Sibande doesn’t leave us with easy answers or resolution. Instead, her work exists in the time, transporting us to a place somewhere between the mortal and the superhero to ponder.
Sibande untethers the conscious and unconscious simultaneously, leaving the viewer in the balance. Well aware of the burden carried by a traumatized culture, she confronts the weight of the past head on, and in doing so alludes to possibilities and new ways for a nation to envision itself.
—Amanda Krugliak, Institute for the Humanities Arts Curator