LONDON.- Somerset House
and 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair are presenting Mary Sibande: I Came Apart at the Seams, a free exhibition of new and selected works from one of South Africas most prominent contemporary artists, Mary Sibande. In her first solo exhibition in the UK, Sibande presents a series of striking photographic and sculptural works exploring the power of imagined narratives in challenging stereotypical depictions of women and shaping identities in South Africa today. The exhibition continues beyond 1-54 as a standalone show throughout Somerset Houses winter season.
I Came Apart at the Seams follows the transformative journey of Sibandes avatar, Sophie. Featuring life-sized sculptural figures and photographs modelled on the artist herself, the exhibition brings together three defining series of works for the first time, Long Live the Dead Queen (2009-13), The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17) and I Came Apart at the Seams (2019-). Through each series, Sibande captures three stages of Sophies transformation, from her beginnings as a domestic housemaid into myriad empowered characters, as she transcends histories of oppression to rewrite her position in both historical and contemporary narratives. Through Sophie, Sibande pays homage to the generations of women in her familys past who worked as domestic labourers, critiquing stereotypical depictions of the female body in South Africa.
With each sculpture dressed in elaborate handmade couture designs, Sibande uses vivid textiles to define the distinct phases of Sophies transformative journey. With each room of the exhibition, Sophies clothing transitions through three colour stages; blue, purple and red. With each colour, Sibande draws from three defining periods of South African history in which she seeks redress: the rise and rule of the Apartheid system: its subsequent fall: and the legacy of apartheid.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are introduced to Sophie in Sibandes first striking sculpture and tableaux photography series Long Live the Dead Queen (2009-13). Dressed in a blue maids uniform, complete with a crisp white apron and bonnet, Sophie wears the clothing which Sibandes mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all would have worn, and been defined by, in their roles as domestic workers. With her eyes shut, Sophies imagination allows her to break free of the constraints of her domestic uniform, taking the lead role in narratives which would have been denied to Sibandes ancestors, capturing Sophie as a bishop leading a congregation, a warrior and royalty.
The exhibition continues with Sibandes second series of works, The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17), in which the artist captures the next phase of Sophies transformation in full effect, as she meets and confronts her future self. Drawing inspiration from Cape Towns 1989 Purple Rain Protest, which saw thousands of anti-apartheid protestors arrested after they were marked by police with purple dye, Sibande shifts the colour palette in the second room of the exhibition, enhancing the impact of her sculpture further with dream-like fabric creations. Through this series, Sibande explores the important, and often painful process, of looking back at ones past in order to move forward and make way for new ideas and identities.
Sophies transformation is most strikingly encapsulated in the large-scale sculpture, A Reversed Retrogress, Scene 1 (2013). Freed of her white apron and bonnet, Sophie is placed in-front of her future self. With both figures arms raised in a charged dance, Sibande explores the relationship between confrontation and liberation when faced with change.
I Came Apart at the Seams culminates in a new body of work by Sibande, of the same title. The series debuts sculptural and photographic works following Sophies third stage of transformation. Through this latest body of work, Sibande explores the collective feeling of anger felt towards ongoing inequality in South Africa today, featuring Sibandes latest recurring motive of the red dog, a reference to a common Zulu expression - ie ukwatile uphenduke inja ebomvu - meaning, he is angry, he turned into a red dog.