“A hundred years later, you’re fucked. A hundred years after that: fucked. And all for what? For a fuckin’ purple shirt. This guy gets it, I like him: he’s gettin’ angry. Angry is good. Angry gets shit done.” – Mr. Nancy
WORDS: JACQUELINE FLINT
PHOTOGRAPHY: SMAC Gallery, copyright Mary Sibande
The first thing Mary Sibande ever made was a dog; a small clay dog like the ceramic dog ornaments cherished by her grandmother, who raised her in the small town of Barberton, Mpumalanga. Every day on her walk through town Sibande encountered another dog, a statue of Jock of the Bushveld outside the Barberton Town Hall. Jock was a good boy, everybody knows that. Well-liked and well-behaved, loyal to the end, which unfortunately saw him shot by his master in the middle of the night, after being mistaken for an intruding, chicken-killing kraal dog. Fast-forward a few decades and Sibande is making more dogs. A pack of vicious red dogs, in the likeness of Jock, follow the command of a powerful woman dressed in flowing purple attire in Cry Havoc, and Let Slip the Dogs of War – the title echoing a line from Sun Tzu’s tome dedicated to combat. It’s a spine-chilling work, but less so than the history of colonial conquest that stretches back a few hundred years and still lingers today, like the stain that won’t wash out.
Mr. Nancy hits the nail on the head, in his gut-wrenching speech to a group of slaves bound for America in the belly of a ship. In the press release for her new show, I came apart at the seams, Sibande refers to “the power of imagination and constructive anger in shaping identities and personal narratives in a post-colonial world.” The power of imagination is a conceptual hallmark of Sibande’s work, via the life-sized figure of Sophie, a domestic worker who dreams herself out of her blue maid’s uniform and into various positions of power and prestige – riding a rearing stallion, conducting an orchestra or commanding her kingdom. In this early work, Sibande explores her own history, and her connection to her mother and grandmother and countless other ancestors forced into servitude by colonial and apartheid systems. These women travelled into the hearts of white suburbs, straight past the guard dogs, to scrub the floors and wipe the snotty noses of rosy-cheeked children. These women are Sibande’s superheroes, with complex identities and legacies.
The next chapter of Sibande’s work, beginning around 2013, saw a shift from blue to purple. In The Purple Shall Govern, which spans a few years of Sibande’s career, Sophie begins the process of her transformation. Purple has been socially significant as a colour for clergy and royalty in Europe owing to the high cost – economic and human – of producing the dye. In South Africa, purple also gained significance in 1989 when a water cannon containing purple dye was turned on anti-apartheid protesters in the streets of Cape Town. Hundreds of people stained purple were arrested and graffiti sprung up in the city days later, asserting that “The purple shall govern” – a play on the 1955 Freedom Charter declaration “The people shall govern”. In this work, Sophie dives down into a shadowy realm, filled with twisted umbilical cord-like creatures. In a key bridging work, A Reversed Retrogress, Scene 1, two figures – Sophie in blue and her purple counterpart – are in the throes of a dramatic engagement. Part dance, part skirmish, the sculpture feels like capoeira, the Brazilian dance that has its roots in slavery, a dance designed to hide the fact that slaves were practicing martial arts. Sophie faces her transformation, which culminates in Sibande’s immersive VR artwork, A Crescendo of Ecstasy, which is entirely the domain of the purple figure and her attendant monsters.
There is a common proverb in the Nguni languages
– ie ukwatile uphenduke inja ebomvu – which means “he is angry, he has turned into a red dog”. The implication is that an angry person is like an animal; in short, they aren’t in their right mind. This may be true, but what is truer, perhaps, is that anger is the spark that lights the fire of action. Rage enables boundaries. A recent break from making art gave Sibande the opportunity to reflect on her oeuvre, to weigh up her work in relation to the world outside the studio. What she sees out there is a lingering anger that has never been truly expressed. For years the people oppressed under apartheid prepared themselves for a civil war that never happened. Kissing and making up did not sate the anger that had built up, and neither did the outpourings of the TRC. Suppressed for so long, it’s time for that rage to be productively engaged. For Sibande, this means vast cinematic investigations along the lines of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall – surreal and dramatic, unfolding the multi-disciplinary tendencies that she has touched on in previous bodies of work.
Just like her dogs of war, the colour for this new chapter is red, the colour of blood and blood-curdling. Preliminary explorations have begun for I came apart at the seams, which is set to show at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in October this year. It aims to shine a light on all the emotion that has so far been kept in the dark.
Frantz Fanon – “The Wretched of the Earth
1961 / Grove Press
“The Wretched of the Earth is a 1961 book by Frantz Fanon, the chapter that drew my attention to the book was concerning violence “
Credo Mutwa – Indaba, my children
1963 / Grove Press
“Indaba, my children by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. A fantastical story that is rooted in African mythology. “
“Thandiswa Mazwai’s “Zabala”, it’s a lyrical meditation on the need or necessity of rebelling / resisting/protest/ revolting. Using the revolution-airs as foundation and reference. “
“Nina Simone’s “You’ll never walk alone”, from the Little Girl Blue Album it an abstract song , It presents solitude as something beautiful. And the piano sends the listener into a melodic trance. All the elements that make a song to be beautiful are on this track, ie the melody and title.”
“Caiphus Semenya’s “Nomalanga” . He is lamenting on leaving his wife, children and home behind as he head to the Transvaal to become a migrant labourer.”