Sibande in words

Ellen Agnew

US Museum – In a time when South Africa seems in turmoil with its identity as a ‘Rainbow Nation’, Mary Sibande’s exhibition The Purple Shall Govern, attempts to visually make sense of it.

MarySibande_ThePurpleShallGovern_USMuseum_'Succession of 3 Ages' (ellen agnew)ellen agnew (photographer and writer)
PHOTO: Ellen Agnew

Sibande’s alter ego, Sophie, dominates the lower floor of the gallery and presents an amalgamation of a pseudo-Victorian dress and ‘traditional’ domestic worker’s apron. Sophie is a figure who challenges post-colonialism and the stereotypical status quo of black women across South Africa.

The exhibition is titled The Purple Shall Govern in reference to non-violent protest action that occurred in Cape Town in 1989. Protesters had gathered together outside of Parliament in opposition to apartheid and were sprayed at with dyed purple water. It was an attempt by the police to mark those protesting the government in order for later recognition and subsequent arrest. Protesters later reimagined this event as a slogan: the people are now purple, and they shall govern.

Sibande’s fantastical centre installation is the embodiment of this slogan. Whilst it is of an autobiographical nature and speaks of three generations of servitude in her family, the installation also speaks to the current climate of the nation. Titled Succession of 3 Ages, the purple, embryo-like creatures that spill off Sophie and reign in four wooden rocking-horses illustrate a somewhat playful and childlike approach to the very serious topic of post colonialism in South Africa.

However, they also speak of the issue of finding equilibrium in our country, as well as our seeming inability to move forward. Our future, perhaps, is ambiguous. The embryo-like creatures, spilling off Sophie and extending above her head in the shape of a rainbow, visually portray the turmoil of our nation. It is evident that Sibande is alluding to a rebirth for both the identity of Sophie and the entire mentality of South Africans.

Photographic prints of Sibande’s other installations capture Sophie in different scenarios, also alluding to the reclamation of identity. A pregnant Sophie releases a pack of fierce, red dogs, taking charge as they demonstrate and perhaps foreshadow a brewing storm. In another image, Sophie sheds her domestic worker’s apron and head scarf, rejecting the institutionalised status quo of black women. Another photograph captures Sophie reigning glorious as she stands over these embryo-like creatures, receiving a purple crown and taking control of her identity.

The exhibition cleverly portrays the challenges of this rebirth and reclamation of the mentality of a nation governed by post colonialism.

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