Sophie ‘Scales’ Johannesburg buildings

More than nineteen buildings in Johannesburg have been draped in large pictures of a three dimensional Victorian maid titled Sophie, created by South African artist Mary Sibande. 

Sophie Elsie by Mary SibandeIn Newtown along Miriam Makeba Street, walls of two old buildings that usually have graffiti on them are now emblazoned with the pictures that surely command attention and engage passersby and drivers alike. Unlike most billboards, the pictures do not have any written words on them making Sophie the point of focus. 

“We want the city to be known internationally as an art gallery. We want international artists to be queuing up to have their works put on buildings in the city,” Lesley Perkes of Artists at Work said. The project started eight years ago when a local mobile phone company commissioned 35 artists to produce art for the city’s buildings.

The project stalled because the “artworks had no conversation with one another”. Thus, one of the key reasons Sibande’s work was selected is because “there is a theme running throughout and the works speak to one another”.

Sibande created Sophie four years ago while studying at the University of Johannesburg. In 2009, the character featured alongside that of the Sibande’s great-grandmother Sophie-Elsie, her grand mother portrayed as Sophie-Merica and her mother Sophie-Velucia at her second solo exhibition titled Long Live the Dead Queen at Gallery Momo in Johannesburg. The exhibition was a celebration of the women in Sibande’s life who worked as domestic workers.   

Artist Mary SibandeSibande uses Sophie as a canvas through which she tells individual stories about herself and family. Sophie is a fiberglass and silicone self-cast of Sibande which she then paints pitch black and dress in a Victorian styled dress complete with an apron and headscarf. She combines her ‘love of the sophistication of garments and her fantasy’ to create Sophie. All the characters are posed and titled differently and their eyes are shut as if in deep meditation. 

“My interest is not in looking at the negatives of being a domestic worker, specifically in current post-apartheid South Africa, but rather the humanity and commonalities of people despite the boxes we find ourselves in.”  

I Put a Spell on Me (2008) shows Sophie dressed in a green uniform stretching out one hand and holding a Louise Vuitton cross with the other to portray the idea of how faith and fashion go hand in hand. Sibande portrays herself with outstretched arms to signify ‘freedom from the cycle of being maids’.  

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used…(2000) shows Sophie sewing a superman suit which is a witty take on the role domestic workers played (and still do) in the white society. Caught Up in the Rapture (2008) depicts Sophie trying to disentangle herself from a black web like structure.

When the works first came to the public scene, they were met by mixed reactions. Interior designer Charles Storr found the figures too big to comprehend while another art enthusiast said that it is ‘sad in a way because the artist is modifying what is known to be a maid’s outfit and wanting it to be more.’  

Sophie NtombiKayise by Mary SibandeCommenting on her next work, Sibande envisioned Sophie to be performing super hero acts like ‘what superman or spider man can do’. This year, Sibande’s latest work The Reign featured at the Joburg Art Fair and at the SPACE: Currencies in Contemporary Art exhibition in Museum Afrika.

Sophie was riding a bronze horse that almost wanted to topple her yet she seemed in control.  A horse is an animal often associated with battle and defines ones status quo. The fact that Sophie was riding one probably means that she is ready for battle or she is living her dream.  

This 28-year-old artist has participated in group exhibitions in Germany, Switzerland, Paris, and New York. Recently, she was nominated together with a group of international artists from Europe, USA, South America, Asia and South Africa to submit artworks for the UN Campus in Bonn. Sibande is the only African artist selected to submit a design for the atrium and it will be interesting to see the final product come September 2010, when the final artworks are submitted. 

American artists Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman and London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare whose works explore race, gender and sexuality inspire Sibande. 

The Johannesburg Art City Project was launched ten years ago with the intention of promoting South African artists and to showcase the city’s urban-renewal projects through public art installations.


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