Mary Sibande’s sculpture The Reign (2010) affects the viewer due to its interplay of bipolarities such as European/African, male/female, past/present, working class/bourgeoisie, private/public, reality/fiction. It forces us to scrutinize our contemporary thinking about the past in relation to the present. The criticism of the colonial era and the rebellion against limitations, that history has placed on identity is inherent in the work, which focuses on African women, historically oppressed as Blacks, as workers, and as women. As a sign of resistance and tribute to all Black women fighting for equal rights it raises questions about race, class and gender.
Vaulting on a boisterous horse, a life-size female figure is displayed in the hyperrealistic sculpture. Rider and mount – both made of fiberglass – are identical in color, creating a consistent medium of presentation for the abundant dress supported by a scaffolding of white and purple undergarments rimmed in Broderie Anglaise, a technique of embroidery, which originated in 16th-century Europe. In addition, the mannequin wears a white apron tied into a voluminous bow at the back and a white headscarf covering her hair. On the one hand, the distinctive elements of the apparel such as puffed sleeves, petticoats and ruffles can be identified as characteristic features of 19th-century Victorian fashion. The style of clothing popular in Great Britain was brought to Africa by the settlers during the unprecedented expansion and consolidation of the British Empire, where it became a symbol of colonial rule. On the other hand, the specific blue color in combination with the white headscarf, collar and apron refers to the uniform of South African maids, that has hardly changed until today. Domestic service – established in the earliest days of European colonisation and later assured by Apartheid – has long been a major sector of the South African labour market. In 2010, the same year the sculpture was created, “the domestic worker industry employed 18% of all women, and 80% of domestic workers were women, with poorly educated Black South Africans making up the vast majority of these women.” (Bosch & McLeod, 2015, p. 135, quoted after Dinkleman & Ranchod, 2010) Readily available at local supermarkets the artist draws on the maid’s uniform and uses the mass product as starting point for her textile hybrids. Born into a line of domestic workers that stretches back three generations, Sibande makes her family history the subject of her art. (Dodd, 2010, p. 467) From silicone casts of her own body she created a fictional character named Sophie [the English name given to her grandmother by her white employer, as Corrigall (2010, p. 155) states]; as alter ego, homage, and representative of former and current domestic workers, she appears here as the protagonist of the work. Through the interplay of the Black body and the dress oscillating between workwear and sublime gown, Sibande performs a subtle manipulation of the semiotics of fashion and their social function as indicators of status, gender, and affiliation (Corrigall, 2015, p. 150). Power relations are explored and the dichotomy of maid and mistress, which implies further bipolarities such as colonist and slave, oppressor and oppressed, European and African, woman of substance and pauper, is deconstructed. “Sophie” occupies the role of the white landlady and thus claims a social position denied to her by repression and racism, whereby her outfit can be read as recovery of autonomy through dispossession of the 'Other'. Regarding the title of the work, the words reign and rein are played on here. In The Reign she is holding the reins both figuratively and metaphorically.
The composition is, also due to its surface property and shade, reminiscent of the European equestrian statue, a portrayal of a sovereign, politician, or commander on horseback, that has functioned since antiquity as a tried and tested means for the demonstration of male power. During colonial rule it was also introduced in South Africa; two well-known examples are the statues of Louis Botha (general in the Second Boer War and first prime minister of the South African Union) in Cape Town and Cecil Rhodes (British entrepreneur and one of the leading players during the high point of imperialism) in Kimberley. Thus, the equestrian statue as a form of representation of white supremacy is anchored in the collective memory of South African society and is here referred to, deconstructed, and reinterpreted by Sibande.
By replacing the idealized male character with a Black female figure, the artist adds an additional layer to the postcolonial debate about South Africans as oppressed Blacks and oppressed workers: women’s limited scope of action in the patriarchal system. Through the usurpation of potentiating positions of power – the mistress first, the sovereign second – Black femininity is calling for an uprising. Dodd (2010) points out that the maid, who is expected to disappear, unseen and unheard, into the background of private life and thus remained socially and culturally invisible for a long time, has assumed the center stage, boldly announcing herself to the world in the gallery room. Her visibility in public space was once again enhanced as the sculpture was featured during the 2010 World Cup within the city of Johannesburg on the side of a building as large, photographic mural. To ensure a dominant and imposing presence, Sibande shows the mount in the so-called pesade: Using the horse's body as a shield and its front hooves as a weapon, the rider is erect according to the movement of the rearing horse and is usually depicted in paintings and sculptures as a battling hero with a sword in his hand and a determined expression on his face. “Sophie” can thus certainly be understood as an insurgent and tribute to all Black women fighting for equal rights. But in my reading the absence of a weapon and the daydreaming character of the human figure, which has her eyes closed as if in trance, break with art historical tradition and expose the scene as an objectification of inner desires and empowering imaginations. The overcoming of class and gender boundaries as well as of limitations, that history has placed on identity, still more of a wishful thinking than an actual condition. This is also evident in the ambivalent figure of the horse, which on the one hand symbolizes the momentum of the protest movement, but on the other hand can also be interpreted as the oppressive system that must be made compliant. While circling the sculpture, it becomes visible, that the dynamics of the animal are not necessarily reflected in the rider’s posture. In a fragile intermediate state, half falling, half vaulting, she presents herself to the viewer from one side as if she were controlling the horse, and from the other as if she would be thrown off at any moment. The Black woman exploring options in the political and social field is thus in a constant balancing act between control and loss of control, combat and lethargy, fiction and reality.
In the large scale work The Reign, Mary Sibande calls on the elaborate attire of the Victorian era to, in some way, refashion our contemporary thinking about the past in relation to the present. She is intent on collapsing binaries around race and power, and alerting us by means of the textile, which is a linchpin of identitarian negotiations, to unexpected interplays between apparently oppositional and asymmetrically related cultures; the plastic body thereby serves in accordance with the functionality of the mannequin as an accessory that reinforces the statement. Clothing is used performatively and, in addition to the cultural reappraisal of national history on the macro level, functions on the micro level as a vehicle of expression and personal search for the artists own postcolonial identity.
- Bosch, Tanja / McLeod Caitlin: Dress, Address and Redress. The relationships between female domestic workers and their employers in Cape Town South Africa, in: Global Media Journal African Edition, Vol. 9 (2015), p. 134-155.
- Corrigall, Mary: Sartorial excess in Mary Sibande's “Sophie”, in: Critical Arts 29 (2015), p. 146–164.
- Dodd, Alexandra: Dressed to thrill. The Victorian postmodern and counter archival imaginings in the work of Mary Sibande, in: Critical Arts 24 (2010), p. 467–473.
- Long Live the Dead Queen (Exhibition Catalogue). Gallery MOMO Johannesburg 2010, Johannesburg 2010.