"Sophie" reigns over dominant display practices : negotiating power in Mary Sibande's installations

Singer, Alison Elizabeth
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Mary Sibande's Long Live the Dead Queen series is an on-going installation in the Johannesburg art gallery, MOMO. The subject of this series, Sophie, is a life-sized corporeal presence; she is Sibande's alter-ego cast from Sibande's own body. A central formal element of Sophie is her costume: a voluminous dress that hybridizes the South African domestic servant's uniform and a Victorian madam's dress. A dress denoting both servitude and dominance, it immediately recalls the colonizer/colonized dialectic between the early British Victorian colonizer and many Black African peoples whom the Victorians consigned to subordination, particularly in South Africa. Sophie is seemingly fixed within this binary power system: her visible identity oscillates between maid and Victorian. Furthermore, her eyes are always downcast so that she initially appears to embrace her subservience. However, I argue that her refusal, or even inability, to acknowledge her surroundings might alternatively demarcate her into a subjective, fantasy space, and one that she necessarily controls. She conflates historical identities that persist in present South African circumstances, so she also denies our ability to locate her within logical time or space, underscoring the notion of fantasy. Within this, Sophie can reclaim agency despite her servitude, performing in various positions of power to resituate dialectical power relationships between dominant/subordinate, master/slave. In other words, the postmodern play of Sophie becomes a postcolonial opposition to subjugation. Throughout each chapter I will apply the psychoanalytic treatment of sublimation in which a socially unacceptable desire, that of a collective or individual, is displaced onto something socially appropriate within the context of that society. I can thus look more closely at the methods by which Sophie draws attention to surreptitious and manipulated power relationships, and the ways she then dislodges these relationships from the power dialectic.