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Exhibition of new and selected works by Mary Sibande opens at Somerset House
'A Terrible Beauty is Born, 2013' by Mary Sibande © Anne Tetzlaff, Mary Sibande.

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 Africa’s 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 House’s winter season.

I Came Apart at the Seams follows the transformative journey of Sibande’s 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 Sophie’s 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 family’s 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 Sophie’s transformative journey. With each room of the exhibition, Sophie’s 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 Sibande’s first striking sculpture and tableaux photography series Long Live the Dead Queen (2009-13). Dressed in a blue maid’s uniform, complete with a crisp white apron and bonnet, Sophie wears the clothing which Sibande’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all would have worn, and been defined by, in their roles as domestic workers. With her eyes shut, Sophie’s 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 Sibande’s ancestors, capturing Sophie as a bishop leading a congregation, a warrior and royalty.

The exhibition continues with Sibande’s second series of works, The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17), in which the artist captures the next phase of Sophie’s transformation in full effect, as she meets and confronts her future self. Drawing inspiration from Cape Town’s 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 one’s past in order to move forward and make way for new ideas and identities.

Sophie’s 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 Sophie’s 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 Sibande’s 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”.

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