Mary Sibande, vue d'exposition

Feminism, 30 January 2020

Mary Sibande, vue d'exposition

Three women artists who are challenging public space

Investigation by Estelle Brousse


In South Africa, Mary Sibande, Donna Kukama and Nondumiso Msimanga are appropriating monuments erected in the public space to overthrow political symbols imposed by white power for more than a century. In addition to questioning history, the three artists denounce the scourge of sexual violence that is developing with impunity in their country.

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Today, South Africa is the country with the highest rate of rape in the world: in 2013, a study [Link:] conducted by the Medical Research Council revealed that up to 3,600 rapes may be committed every day in the country. Only one in thirteen people report these crimes to the authorities according to the Institute for Security Studies.

Rhodes Must Fall” chanted South African students at the University of Cape Town in March 2015 as they attacked the statue of General Cecil Rhodes at the entrance to the campus. The bronze monument, which dates back to 1934, was erected as a reminder of white supremacy in a country ruled by apartheid until 1994. General Rhodes, a wealthy white businessman who made his fortune in mining, donated the land on which the University of Cape Town was built. Today, these institutions of colonialism and the imperialist monuments that adorn the public space are considered disturbing. In calling for the statue to be taken down, the students of Cape Town resolved to attack the entire educational system beyond Cecil Rhodes. South African youth are calling for the decolonization of university learning and for more blacks to be allowed to accede to high positions.

Before the insurrection, the two South African artists, Donna Kukama (born in 1981) and Mary Sibande (born in 1982) had already proposed new forms of monuments with the same desire to re-appropriate the public space.

Apartheid has left deep traces in South Africa by maintaining for decades a context of racial segregation that has profoundly disrupted personal relationships in the private sphere. Even today, many black women still work in white homes. These domestic workers, commonly referred to as “maids”, go about the city, all dressed in the same blue uniform, devoting their lives to the comfort of white people.

Through her alter-ego maid, who she has called Sophie, Mary Sibande has developed a narrative that takes the form of a real fairy tale. Her installations give freedom back to the maids to pursue their dreams: Sophie lives in a fanciful utopia, her eyes always closed, allowing her to escape from her condition. Mary Sibande has made Sophie her heroine. The character lives in a dreamlike universe while taking her place in history. Capable of anything, the character allows Mary to work on memory through the reinterpretation of the fundamental elements of Western art history that have invaded the South African cultural landscape.

In the artist’s family, all the women were domestic workers, the job of maid generally being passed down from generation to generation. It became obvious to her to commemorate the family history, given that logically Mary Sibande herself should have been a maid. Her works appear as a series of ex-votos dedicated to the history of maids and beyond to all black South African women. Women whose identity remains uncertain. For example, Mary does not know the real first name of her great-grandmother, who she calls Elsie, the name given to her by her bosses who couldn’t remember her first name. Neither does she bear her own real first name, Ntombikayise, refused at school by her teachers who considered it too complicated. Instead, they imposed Mary’s Christian first name on her.

An alter-ego symbol of the empowerment of South African women

Mary Sibande has given Sophie her own features, the character is moulded on the artist. With this double, the artist achieves a multiplication of the self which, far from being a form of narcissism, is a heroic projection. This double keeps Sophie in the imagination and Mary in reality. The two women write the same story, that of a free woman who carries the memory of a heavy family heritage. The viewer of her works comes to wonder who the real Mary is and where she is, then goes in search of her.

Sophie is always cast in a position of strength, in turn conducting music, astride a rearing horse, holding a sceptre, stopping soldiers… Despite her power and extravagant Victorian dresses, she remains confined to the role of the maid in blue uniform. In referring to the Victorian era, Mary Sibande connects Sophie to the history of her country.

Mary Sibande, The Reign, 2019. Life size fiberglass stallion, steel, cotton. Images courtesy of SMAC Gallery, artwork © Mary Sibande.

In the piece entitled The Reign, 2010, Sophie is mounted on a rearing horse on a pedestal, a direct reference to the model of equestrian statues that can be seen in public places. By substituting Sophie for the illustrious figures, the artist aims at empowerment, conferring power on the maids by celebrating their bravery: “I was looking at equestrian statues in South Africa and all of them were of white males […] I thought of changing, like removing the general Jan Smuts or Louis Botha and then put ordinary people like women and black women.” Mary Sibande does not care about the symbolism, according to which the representation of a rearing horse announces the death of its rider in battle. On the other hand, for her, “the world is a battle. She insists: “This position that I actually have put on Sophie, it is a battle. This battle has been happening for centuries with black women fighting for their rights and fighting for positions. At some points, some of them died in the forefront. If I had to pick down Sophie from that rearing horse, I would put up Winnie Madikizela Mandela.” Sophie is an emblem behind which other icons of the struggle for freedom and women’s rights can emerge. The artist gives black South African women a heroine to believe in. The persona of Sophie is both a response to Walt Disney’s fairies and princesses in whom no black girl can recognize herself, and a response to the statues of white men in the South African public space. By seizing the codes of representation of a Western art history in which Mary Sibande does not recognize herself, she finally writes art history in her own image.

In 2010, whereas previously Sophie had only been shown in cultural institutions, she found herself on the walls of many buildings in Johannesburg. It was the Long Live the Dead Queen project that allowed passers-by to admire Sophie displayed on giant billboards.

Maboneng, theatre of activist poetry

Like Mary Sibande, Donna Kukama puts her body on the line. She can now claim to be an activist artist as well as a poet, a troublemaker, even if it took her a long time to define herself as such.

In 2009, for the event entitled “Art That Comes to You” during the Spring Art Tour, Donna Kukama swings in the air eight metres above the ground on a swing suspended from a bridge over Mai Mai Market, a historic market in the Maboneng district, run by women but frequented by men, notably taxi drivers. In this highly symbolic context, the artist’s gesture embodies a veritable living monument. A short video looking down from the swing remains from this performance. You see the artist overlooking the audience yet appearing very close to it. The scene is filmed in slow motion and we hear words in French (to echo the language of Fragonard) and in Setswana.

Jean Honoré Fragonard, The Swing (1767). Oil on canvas. (The Wallace Collection, Londres.)

The title of the work, The Swing (After After Fragonard), immediately reveals Kukama’s desire to assert herself as heir to the French Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Between 1767 and 1769, the latter painted Les Hasards heureux de l’escarpolette (The Swing in English), where a young woman swings happily. In this oil painting, a veritable ode to opulence and excess, Fragonard stages a frivolous, light-hearted situation in which the central figure of the young woman on the swing, pushed by her husband in the shadows, reveals the underside of her imposing dress to a young man in ecstasy, lurking in the bushes. This game of seduction is not lacking in irony, for while the husband operates the ropes and seems to be in control of the situation, his charming wife is not as innocent as she may seem, as the play of glances between her and the young man shows. In her flight, she loses a slipper, like a promise of pleasure to come. This libertine scene takes place during the reign of Louis XV in the privileged world of the aristocracy. At that time, slavery in the French colonies was common practice (only temporarily abolished between 1794 and 1802). As for the living conditions in South Africa and survival conditions for the Blacks, they were far from being as frivolous as in Fragonard’s painting at that time. The slave trade along the African coast was wreaking havoc. In South Africa, the 18th century was marked by the expansion of the Dutch who occupied the entire western half of the country. Taking advantage of a period of war, the English seized the colony of the Cape of Good Hope in 1797. In France, the court appears to be far from all this turbulence. Slavery, the hard lives of the French people or the wars, seem to be of no concern for Fragonard’s female character swinging innocently.

The second After in After After Fragonard is a reference to the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare (born in1962). Shonibare reinterprets the masterpieces of art history by replacing the ostentation of purely Western rococo bourgeois clothing with batik, considered as an African fabric but originating from trade with the West, particularly with the Dutch. In 2001, he reproduced Fragonard’s The Swing calling his work The Swing (After Fragonard). This installation presents a headless woman in an opulent batik dress swinging in the trees. She is alone and the spectator views the scene from the place of the lover, in the position of a voyeur. By decapitating the woman, Yinka Shonibare echoes the French Revolution, a way for him to critique the feigned innocence of characters who are deaf to the context of life outside the court.

Performance as a live monument

It was important for Donna Kukama to stand out from her male predecessors by adding an After to the title of her performance: “It was a question of self-representation as a woman because the previous ‘Swings’ were men depicting a woman: the first one is frivolous […] and the second one is static, she has no agency, she has no head! So the ‘after after’ was a reinsertion into firstly art history and how women are often represented by men.”

The artist thus follows on from two male artists who have transformed women into objects of desire or as being soulless, purely devoted to the voyeurism of men. By using the tool of performance, Donna Kukama gets rid of the figure of the puppeteer-husband pulling the ropes and swings herself, at her own risk and peril, fully aware of her actions. She takes revenge. She sees her medium as the most relevant for writing a history of art in the feminine because to perform is to act in real space while inserting artistic fiction. Kukama appreciates this link between fiction and reality which makes her an ephemeral monument. She renews the reading of The Swing, replacing ostentatious dress for the sobriety of a light, simple white dress. Despite her apparent fragility, her performance courageously denounces a context of violence. The white of her dress, in principle synonymous with purity and innocence, becomes a direct reference to a news item: the rape of a young woman by a taxi driver who justified his act by the fact that she was wearing a white miniskirt. In Maboneng, the artist’s performance took place near a large taxi stand at a time when many assaults are committed by taxi drivers in the country. With her video, Donna Kukama makes a work of memory, she pays homage to the young woman but also to all the assaulted women. The artist affirms her desire to create a monument : “I always look at history as a monument and performance as a monument […] I think about making monuments about things that are not usually monumentalised. […] The thinking is really about how we think about monument as not statues that are built for political leaders which then sit and have no references years later.”

Tribute is also paid through the slow motion of the video. This stylistic effect is a metaphor of space-time, from the time that has passed from Fragonard to Shonibare, to the attack on the young woman by the taxi driver and finally to Donna Kukama who defies this chronology.

The performance is also a denunciation of the transformation of the Maboneng district, which is being gentrified by the economic boom with no regard for social inequalities. If she chose Fragonard, who takes court life as a model, it is also to denounce the gap that exists in this district. She openly criticizes the economic policy of the city of Johannesburg by pulling ten-rand banknotes out of her bodice and throwing them down into the market. Her body thus becomes an object of consumerism, distributing money in a space where economic inequalities are blatant. Looking down on the market, she says “I place myself in the middle of these violent men, in a way that they couldn’t catch me” (since most of customers in the market are men). The viewer of the video is struck by the stark contrast between the gentleness of the woman swinging above the scene and the joyful, eager crowd trying to grab the banknotes.

But what seemed to the hypnotized spectator like a waking dream, an endless swinging, ends abruptly. The broken seat of the swing suddenly appears on the screen, the artist is gone. Donna Kukama has fallen from a height of eight meters and fractured her leg! Bringing one’s body into play in a performance is an act that is, in principle, always mastered by the artist. But not in this case. This spectacular accident suddenly brought Donna Kukama back into the space-time of reality, which is what made the performance so incredible. Its relevance lies in the fact that it puts the artist in danger in order to denounce the danger risked by women. The fragility that she seemed to emanate adds to the strength of her performance, she delivers a powerful image. The video then becomes a moving monument to the memory of women victims of violence. The artist’s fall has elevated her, by disappearing from the image, she has become a kind of allegory, elusive and eternal.

Originally, the video of the performance was to be screened on site. The accident disrupted this staging. In retrospect, the artist considers that the fall “makes the work, it completes the work”. She goes on to evoke the work done on the sound that was recorded to accompany the images: “The sound then becomes an extension of the moment of the fall.” We hear the agitation of the crowd below, proverbs in Setswana as well as in French. “Don’t be afraid of the light and the high flight of the eagle because its nature is to descend,” says one of the voices in Setswana, as a reminder of the artist’s fall, but also to say that one should not project oneself too high in society because men who seem powerful are often bad and end up with a fall.

Rape culture

In her essay Rape: A South African Nightmare published in 2015, Pumla Dineo Gqola tries to understand why and how South Africa has developed its appalling culture of rape1. Speaking about a “rape culture” is necessary to address a society that trivializes or normalizes sexual and gender-based violence, denies the notion of consent and advocates silence around such violence. According to this feminist philosopher and scholar, rape is an expression of patriarchal power whose aim is to reinforce submission, an act against the feminine. This violence is the result of a long historical process. Rape culture suggests that rape and the stereotypes surrounding it have permeated morals from generation to generation. In an attempt to clarify this thesis, Pumla Dineo Gqola looks back to the period of slavery when “the rape of slave women was a routine part of slave society from Cape Town to the Americas…”. Rape is a testimony to the sexist-racist thinking that governs society; it is the symbol of white heteropatriarchal domination that also involves the colonization of bodies. The place of the female slave, mainly in the United States, is a phenomenon that the American theorist and activist bell hooks studied in her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism published in 1981. She writes: “The nakedness of the African female served as a constant reminder of her sexual vulnerability. Rape was a common method of torture slavers used to subdue recalcitrant black women. The threat of rape or other physical brutalization inspired terror in the psyches of displaced African females.” Within the colonial estates, violence continued: “It was common practice to force a young slave girl to sleep in the same room as the master or mistress, a situation that provided a breeding ground for sexual assault.” White women held black slave women responsible for rape because they had been socialized by 19th century sexual morality to regard woman as [a] sexual temptress.” Pumla Dineo Gqola adds: “Rape has also been central to the spread of white supremacy and to the way race and racism have organized the world over the last four hundred years.” . As for apartheid, it established white supremacy in South Africa which, according to Gqola, helped create the stereotypes of the black man as the idealized rapist and the black woman as “hypersexual and resultantly impossible to rape.” What she means here is that the rape of a black woman had no value, it did not count as violence but was allowed, commonly approved. It is a statement that bell hooks (and before her the American activist Angela Davis) had already verified (in the U.S. context) when she wrote: “They [white men] employed two important myths to brainwash all whites against the newly manumitted blacks: the myth of the “bad,” sexually loose black woman and the myth of the black male rapist. Neither myth was based on fact.”

Artists and activists Nondumiso Msimanga and Jenny Nijenhuis. © Photo Zeno Paterson

Repairing the harmed body

Jointly initiated by the artists Jenny Nijenhuis and Nondumiso Msimanga, the project SA’s Dirty Laundry was to collect used underwear belonging to victims of sexual abuse from all over South Africa. 3,600 panties, like the number of daily rapes, are pegged up a 1.2-kilometre-long clothes line. First exhibited in the Maboneng district in November 2016, the installation was also displayed in Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2018.

In November 2016, as part of the same project, Nondumiso Msimanga did the performance2 On the line (in reference to a clothes line), in the street opposite the cultural establishment SoMa Art + Space. The action begins in the taxi that brings the artist to the scene. She gets out of the vehicle wearing a wedding dress made of white panties, carrying a basket filled with panties on her head. It is white and it is used so you can see the stains even more clearly. We are far from the beautiful ideal… This performance echoes the personal story of Nondumiso Msimanga, who was raped as a child. “By the time I step out of the car and I’m outside on the street, I’m still scared but I already feel a little bit braver because I know that there are people, just ordinary South Africans who are actually willing to help when they understand what this is about. So, during the piece, and seeing all of the different faces on the street, I felt safe. I feel like I’m helped by this group of people who are here for a reason, people who are here because they also believe that this is important, people who, some of them, are also survivors like me.”

Nondumiso Msimanga, on the line, Johannesburg, november 2016. Performance during South Africa Dirty Laundry exhibition, curator Jenny Nijenhuis © Photo RR

There’s an alchemy between the performer and the audience watching her, which gives her the energy to go through with this difficult performance. She tips all the underwear in her basket onto the street. Then she undoes the sides of her dress and kneels down in the middle of the road before starting to cry and writhe in pain. We can see this action as a symbol of the various stages of a woman’s life, from childhood to puberty and marriage. The artist explains that on the wedding day, the woman is supposed to be “all pure and white”; therefore, rape prevents her from obtaining the status of woman. Msimanga fights against the idea that a raped woman can never be fully a woman. By showing that a multitude of women’s bodies have been subjected to violence, she disrupts the image of women. By staging the danger, the woman appears as someone to be protected. By displaying used underwear, Nondumiso Msimanga physically and emotionally carries the memory of the atrocities committed on women’s bodies: “When I started off, I didn’t know that I would end up with so many different people’s underwear on my body, and it’s heavier that I can explain. It’s physically heavy because it weighs about 45 kilos, but it’s immensely heavy because it’s all of these people here.” Clothing is a second skin that hides and protects the body. It’s often used as a memory object. The wedding dress is typically an object that women keep throughout their lives, so in the performance it represents an unattainable memory.

Nondumiso Msimanga then takes off her dress and stands naked, relieving herself of the weight of all the underwear: “I wanted to take off all the burdens.” She explains that by getting naked, the goal is to rediscover her corporeality. Since rape is an intrusion into the flesh creating rupture, it is by reconnecting to that same flesh that reconstruction has to take place. By revealing her naked body, she exposes a trauma, something that cannot be seen. Finally, after covering her private parts with used panties and putting the full basket back on her head, she sings the national anthem. As it starts to rain, standing in the street surrounded by strangers, she confides that at that moment she felt powerful: “By the time the piece comes to an end and I start singing Nkosi sikelela, the original version of the South African national anthem, and I’m naked, I don’t feel that my body is in any harm and I felt stronger than I have felt in my whole life.” By using the anthem, she speaks directly to South African leaders, whom she sees as responsible for a culture of rape that is itself part of a culture of silence.

Emergency action plan

South African public space appears to be the place in which to affirm decolonial feminism. Donna Kukama and Mary Sibande challenge the monument in its fixed and hieratic aspect. They attack the traditional bronze statues, embodiments of patriarchy, replacing them with living, powerful female figures. As for Nondumiso Msimanga, she delivers her intimacy in the street in the face of the sexist and sexual violence perpetrated on a daily basis throughout the country. These women embody the struggle and their work is the beginning of national awareness. As artists and activists, they are paving the way for new thinking within their society.

In September 2019, thousands of women protested in front of the Cape Town Parliament against violence against women. While former President Jacob Zuma was implicated in a rape case, current President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to these protests with an emergency action plan. These measures include communication campaigns aimed at the male public, the training of people who will intervene in 278 municipalities, funds mobilized to set up specific courts of justice for violence and better support for victims.

Translation by Angela Kent
Cover: Mary Sibande, I Came Apart at the Seams’ exhibition, Somerset House, London, Sept 2019. Photo by Jeff Gilbert/Alamy Live News

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