For Sophie-Ntombikayise, South African artist Mary Sibande clothes a fiberglass body cast in an amalgamation of pseudo-Victorian dress and maid’s uniform, focusing on the visible, tangible outfit which was/is indexical of class and sophistication. Like much of her other work, this sculpture responds to both the artist’s personal history and the history of post-Apartheid South Africa. Through this autobiographical sculpture, Sibande explores constructions of gender, class and race while also enriching the Spencer’s growing collection of contemporary African art.
Sibande astutely applies a post-colonial lens to the socio-cultural implications behind dress through her re-fashioning of a Victorian style garment, indicative of the colonial presence in South Africa. The hazy blue tulle billowing out over the rich purple bustled skirt and the dramatic ruff collar of Sophie-Ntombikayise, which transform the garb of a maid into that of a queen, highlight Sibande’s interest in the universal practice of self-fashioning.
Sophie-Ntombikayise culminates Sibande’s series of sculptural installations featuring four generations of women in her family, all of whom worked as domestic servants. These women represent Sibande’s impetus to transcend and interrogate constructions of domestic servitude and expectations of simplicity and submission based on race and gender. As a self-portrait, Sophie-Ntombikayise interjects the artist into the guise of domestic worker. Sibande states, “Adopting a new position as artist, yet celebrating the women in my family, this figure represents my appreciation and acknowledgement of the hardships borne by my family and countless others in South Africa.” Through Sophie-Ntombikayise, Sibande addresses the “traditional” role of black women in South Africa and other countries with a history of black servitude.
With eyes downcast and arms outstretched in a dual gesture of resignation and jubilation, Sophie-Ntombikayise transports viewers to an alternate realm where history, fantasy, and identity become outwardly expressed through clothing and cultural stereotypes are dismissed. By altering the maid’s uniform which typically identifies the wearer in terms of ethnic or cultural heritage, Sibande hopes to reveal the individuality that years of stereotypes have concealed. The artist currently lives and works in South Africa. This is the first of her work to enter a museum collection in the United States.