The immensity and depth of Mary Sibande’s multi-media artworks reflect the magnitude of her subject matter, which explicitly entwines the enduring effects of British imperialism and the apartheid. Through photographs, sculptures, and sprawling installations that scale floor to ceiling, the South African artist most often features a central Black woman, who is shown enveloped in purple roots or grasping thick, black thread dangling from a nearby portrait.
Named Sophie, the figure’s role is subversive and one that sheds light on the particularly “cruel history of Black female oppression and its implications in contemporary life—in particular, perception and ownership of freedom.” Sophie is dressed in color-specific costumes resembling Victorian-era clothing and often is wrapped in an apron, a garment synonymous with domestic work. Each bold hue is rich with cultural and historical contexts.
(Sophie) is first encountered in the traditional blue uniform of a domestic servant as she dreams of the possibilities denied to her by discrimination and inequality. Sophie is then transformed into a fantastical figure, enveloped in purple representing the bitter struggle against apartheid and the promise of equality. In her most recent incarnation, Sophie wears red, the color of anger, as she gives form to popular disaffection and continued civil unrest across South Africa.