The Dish X Mary Sibande


This month, we sit down for lunch with internationally acclaimed local artist Mary Sibande, to discuss the influence of women on her work, her use of technology as a medium, and what she gets up to when she’s not spending time in the studio.

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As artists, designers and architects navigate their roles and responsibilities in a fast-changing world, the time is ripe for overdue conversations on inclusivity and the role of women in the cultural field. What are the challenges and opportunities that you have encountered as a female artist in South Africa?

I was born in the 80’s and started my career as a visual artist in a post-Apartheid South Africa where certain doors were open to me because of my race and gender. This presented me with opportunities that talented female artists did not necessarily have a generation before me. I would not say that it has been easy because I still had to put in the hours, but I feel I had it relatively easy by comparison. This influenced the body of work that I started working on early in my career. I started questioning my history as a black woman and my relationship to the women who came before me. In my family, I was surrounded by women who worked as domestic workers for white families. And so the character of Sophie was born. Although there is nothing wrong with being a domestic worker, I wanted to understand why it was, and still is, one of the few jobs available to women in South Africa.

The character of Sophie has really resonated with audiences on an international scale. She has taken on various guises and explored numerous thematic areas. How has Sophie evolved as a character in your work?

Sophie’s story can be divided into three chapters: the Blue Series, which explored the height of Apartheid; the Purple Series, which explored the fall of Apartheid; and the Red Series, which explored the legacy of Apartheid. I have always tried to challenge myself by incorporating other elements and media into my work so as not to become repetitive. Last year I presented a solo show that involved the use of virtual reality headsets integrated with masks of Sophie’s face. The medium allowed the audience to transpose themselves into Sophie’s dreamscape, to experience the world of her imagination from her vantage point. VR technology has given me the opportunity to morph my work from the sculptural into the theatrical.

Many artists who achieve success struggle with losing the freedom to experiment and fail. How do you find the space to explore new directions under the pressure to keep producing work that the public is familiar with?

I believe that when people come to my shows, they shouldn’t know what to expect. You should always surprise your audience and strive to never repeat yourself. I have actually recently started painting - and who knows, maybe I will exhibit these one day.

Can you name a seminal moment/s in your early life that influenced your decision to pursue art as a career?

When I was young I never even knew that fine arts could be a career path. I grew up in a small town that did not house a single gallery or museum. I always thought that I would be a fashion designer and applied to study fashion. It turned out that admissions to this faculty were already closed, so I applied to study fine arts as a fallback. I ended up loving it – it was just one of those decisions that life made for me. Who knows where I would have ended up if I pursued fashion. I am fortunate that my career has enabled me to incorporate both worlds into my work – the smallest dress that I’ve made was 3 meters long!

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What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?

When you have ‘made it’ so to speak, you should open the door for others. I mentor young female artists, some of whom have gone on to accomplish amazing things in their own careers such as Lebohang Kganye, who won the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition and is doing incredible work overseas.

What do you want people to gain from engaging with your work?

As an artist, you cannot dictate how people should interpret your work. People should be allowed to see what they see and feel what they feel, depending on their own backgrounds and histories.

If you could change any one thing about the local art industry, what would it be?

If there is one thing I could change, it would be to have more art critics in South Africa. An art industry is shaped by the dialogue between artists and art critics. It’s easy for artists to get swept away by their own work without having a voice of reason.

Fine arts operates within a very closed community that is difficult to break into and can often be a prohibitively expensive career to pursue. What advice would you give to aspiring or newly established artists on how to navigate these challenges?

Artists shouldn’t pursue art for the fame and recognition that comes with having a successful art career, but rather for the love of making art.

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What are you up to when you’re not working?

I am a mother to a very energetic 4-year-old boy, and a wife to a talented visual artist and art educator, so I’m occupied with family-oriented activities whenever I’m not working.

What’s next for Mary Sibande?

In October I’m participating in a solo show at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London entitled “I came apart at the seams”, and in September I have a residency in the Netherlands.

Next year I am participating in a group show at the N’GOLÁ Festival of Arts, Creation, Environment; Utopias in São Tomé e Príncipe and in the ‘Open Borders’ group show at the 14th Curitiba International Biennial in Brazil. I will also exhibit at the Lahare Biennale in Pakistan; participate in a solo show at the FRISC Art museum and in ‘TEXTURES: the history and art of Black hair’ which is an exhibition that will be held at the Kent State University in September 2020 and lasts I am participating in an exhibition at the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

I am also in the middle of creating a new body of work, which is very exciting for me!