I have recently encountered Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the ‘rhizome’’, says Mary Sibande. ‘They say a rhizome has neither a beginning nor and end, but always a middle.’ The South African artist was referring specifically to her series of sculpture and textile works, The Purple Shall Govern (2013). The striking figure at its centre is one of many iterations of Sibande’s alter-ego, the domestic servant Sophie Ntombikayise, who emanates and is entangled by sprawling, supernatural roots of purple fabric. The Purple Shall Govern – a slogan recalling a series of 1989 protests in Cape Town, during which activists were sprayed with purple dye before arrest – is one of Sibande’s most celebrated series. It was a stand-out installation in the artist’s 2019/20 exhibition I Came Apart at the Seams, which debuted at Somerset House and marked Sibande’s first solo show in the UK. 

Mary Sibande, The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17), Courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO; © Mary Sibande

Sibande’s work has been inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia project (1972-1980), which depicts culture and society as ‘rhizomatic’ – an interdependent bundle of roots in which all organisations of power are reliant on one another to survive. Therefore, as the exhibition title suggests, Sibande’s creations utilise elements of sculpture and textile work to present the Black, female domestic worker as not only entwined with oppressive structures, but also crucial to their very economic existence.

Yet, the rhizome roots can also connect in different directions. In several of Sophie’s incarnations – for example, A Reversed Retrogress, Scene 2 (2013) and Wielding the Collision of Past, Present and Future (2017) – Sibande replicates the sculpture’s purple fabric roots to portray the bond between herself and her female ancestors. Sibande’s mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all domestic servants in South Africa during Apartheid. Other roots are imagined, asO a dream-like Sophie encacts various jobs  outside of the  domestic sphere. In Silent Symphony (2010), Sophie conducts an orchestra wearing an expansive royal blue train, without sheets of music and without an audience, but poised and expressive. In Living Memory (2011), Sophie wears a military uniform in bright teal with arms ‘holding’ an invisible assault rifle. When creating the work, Sibande recalled the anger she felt when her father joined the South African army and how her matriarchal  upbringing taught her to see many social and political events through a woman’s eyes.

Courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO; © Mary Sibande

 It is perhaps  They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To (2008), in which Sophie forlornly sews herself a makeshift ‘Superman’ jumper, that creates the most  jarring juxtaposition between the predetermined, domestic world she inhabits and the escapism of popular culture. In the acts of sewing, knitting and mending, Sophie imagines a life for herself beyond her prescribed role. Taken more literally, this version of Sophie also demonstrates  her role as a ‘hero’ in her own story, despite being a cog in the larger engine of domestic labour which fuels the capitalist economy.  

Of course, debates on the intersection between ‘housework’ and ‘artwork’ are not necessarily new, nor is the female domestic worker a recent muse for artists working with textiles, embroidery and stitching. In the past few years we have witnessed a significant revival in the ‘make and mend’ mindset , something Emily Matcher describes at the ‘New Domesticity’, in reaction to climate change and the sustainability agenda, economic hardship, and demands on mental health and wellbeing. However, it is incredibly important to distinguish this hobbyist domestic turn from the issue of paid (and  unpaid) domestic labour. Works dissecting the latter gained prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, when debates around remuneration and recognition for domestic work became part of feminist art discourse.

Interesting examples include British artist Margaret Harrison’s Homeworkers (1977; Tate) which marks Harrison’s involvement with the campaign to unionise women carrying out household domestic duties, and American artist Judith Brodsky’s Dishrag Diagrammatic (1977; V&A) which depicts the dishrag/ tea towel as akin to a national flag, thus emblematic of domestic work as a source of power and pride.  

For a non-Western setting, we might look to the embroidery of story cloths by Hmong women in the 1970s and 1980s to understand how oppression and expression are deeply entwined with needle and thread. In 1974, the Laos government sought to wipe out the minority Hmong community, forcing them to flee across the Mekong River into Thailand. Some of the Hmong women, who were accustomed to fine needlework, were encouraged by missionaries to embroider their experiences onto story cloths as a therapy and memorial. Many of these depict women as central to households and communities – lighting fires, cooking food and weaving as to provide constancy and stability in troubled times.

Sibande is not the first to utilise textiles to subvert the role of the domestic servant, or the domesticated woman, but she is arguably the most inventive and important proponent of such a form in recent years. Sibande’s predecessors have often been Western artists engaged with the struggle of domestic workers but without the lived experience of joining generations of women in the same role. As Bridget Anderson writes in Doing the Dirty Work, feminist discourse risks regarding domestic work as “the great leveller, a common burden imposed on [all] women”, thus disregarding the divisions of race and class in paid domestic work – something Sibande tackles directly in her sculptures of Sophie.

Sibande builds on an important body of feminist textile work by challenging the conception that what happens in the home is ‘low culture’ or ‘dirty work’, and what appears in the art gallery is sanitised ‘high culture’. By utilising the life-size figure of Sophie – an intrusive, tangible human being in three-dimensional form – Sibande offers a disquieting vision of Black women’s domestic work in South Africa. What’s more, rather than merely rejecting or reclaiming such complex labels, Sibande embraces each one sensitively and personally. She ultimately proves that Sophie is ‘always in the middle’ and a decisive actor in society’s mess of roots.

All images courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO; © Mary Sibande 

Mary Sibande’s I Came Apart at the Seams was exhibited at Somerset House between October 2019 – January 2020

Words: Ruth Beddow

About: Ruth is a writer and researcher based in London, with a background in English Literature and Transnational Studies. She currently advises on international affairs at Historic England, with a focus on intangible and contested heritage. Prior to this, Ruth worked at the V&A, Barbican Centre and as a facilitator at several independent museums. She is a German speaker, student of Arabic and a keen poet.