Avitha Sooful & Estelle Vallender

Mary Sibande. The Reign. 2010. Fiberglass, steel, cotton. 330 x 201 cm. Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Mary Sibande

Black femininity shall reign!

Mary Sibande’s sculpture The Reign (2010) is part of the work series Long Live the Dead Queen (2009 - 2013). Her work is presented at The Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. The museum is housing a vast and critically engaging collection of historical, modern and contemporary South African, African and international artworks. 


"Sibande has used her work to expose many different things, from postcolonial South Africa to stereotypes of women as well as stereotypes regarding black women in South Africa. Her work contains multiple types of mediums such as sculpture, photography, design, collage, and even theatrics. Sibande’s painting and sculpture uses the human form to explore the construction of identity in a postcolonial South African context, but also attempts to critique stereotypical depictions of women, particularly black women. Her work Long Live the Dead Queen was found in murals all over the city of Johannesburg in 2010. Sibande has also used her artwork to focus on giving voiceless people their voice back. Some have even said that her work confronts the very inkling of a disempowered African female and that her work aims to crack the morse code associated with western ideals of beauty and how they can appeal to black women." (Wikipedia)


sa as sibande views

Views of the artwork, presentation at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, 2019 (Copyright the artist / E. Wagner).

  • Estelle Vallender
    Estelle Vallender

    Mary Sibande’s sculpture The Reign (2010) affects the viewer due to its interplay of bipolarities such as European/African, male/female, past/present, working class/bourgeoisie, private/public, reality/fiction. It forces us to scrutinize our contemporary thinking about the past in relation to the present. The criticism of the colonial era and the rebellion against limitations, that history has placed on identity is inherent in the work, which focuses on African women, historically oppressed as Blacks, as workers, and as women. As a sign of resistance and tribute to all Black women fighting for equal rights it raises questions about race, class and gender.


    Vaulting on a boisterous horse, a life-size female figure is displayed in the hyperrealistic sculpture. Rider and mount – both made of fiberglass – are identical in color, creating a consistent medium of presentation for the abundant dress supported by a scaffolding of white and purple undergarments rimmed in Broderie Anglaise, a technique of embroidery, which originated in 16th-century Europe. In addition, the mannequin wears a white apron tied into a voluminous bow at the back and a white headscarf covering her hair. On the one hand, the distinctive elements of the apparel such as puffed sleeves, petticoats and ruffles can be identified as characteristic features of 19th-century Victorian fashion. The style of clothing popular in Great Britain was brought to Africa by the settlers during the unprecedented expansion and consolidation of the British Empire, where it became a symbol of colonial rule. On the other hand, the specific blue color in combination with the white headscarf, collar and apron refers to the uniform of South African maids, that has hardly changed until today. Domestic service – established in the earliest days of European colonisation and later assured by Apartheid – has long been a major sector of the South African labour market. In 2010, the same year the sculpture was created, “the domestic worker industry employed 18% of all women, and 80% of domestic workers were women, with poorly educated Black South Africans making up the vast majority of these women.” (Bosch & McLeod, 2015, p. 135, quoted after Dinkleman & Ranchod, 2010) Readily available at local supermarkets the artist draws on the maid’s uniform and uses the mass product as starting point for her textile hybrids. Born into a line of domestic workers that stretches back three generations, Sibande makes her family history the subject of her art. (Dodd, 2010, p. 467) From silicone casts of her own body she created a fictional character named Sophie [the English name given to her grandmother by her white employer, as Corrigall (2010, p. 155) states]; as alter ego, homage, and representative of former and current domestic workers, she appears here as the protagonist of the work. Through the interplay of the Black body and the dress oscillating between workwear and sublime gown, Sibande performs a subtle manipulation of the semiotics of fashion and their social function as indicators of status, gender, and affiliation (Corrigall, 2015, p. 150). Power relations are explored and the dichotomy of maid and mistress, which implies further bipolarities such as colonist and slave, oppressor and oppressed, European and African, woman of substance and pauper, is deconstructed. “Sophie” occupies the role of the white landlady and thus claims a social position denied to her by repression and racism, whereby her outfit can be read as recovery of autonomy through dispossession of the 'Other'. Regarding the title of the work, the words reign and rein are played on here. In The Reign she is holding the reins both figuratively and metaphorically.


    The composition is, also due to its surface property and shade, reminiscent of the European equestrian statue, a portrayal of a sovereign, politician, or commander on horseback, that has functioned since antiquity as a tried and tested means for the demonstration of male power. During colonial rule it was also introduced in South Africa; two well-known examples are the statues of Louis Botha (general in the Second Boer War and first prime minister of the South African Union) in Cape Town and Cecil Rhodes (British entrepreneur and one of the leading players during the high point of imperialism) in Kimberley. Thus, the equestrian statue as a form of representation of white supremacy is anchored in the collective memory of South African society and is here referred to, deconstructed, and reinterpreted by Sibande.


    By replacing the idealized male character with a Black female figure, the artist adds an additional layer to the postcolonial debate about South Africans as oppressed Blacks and oppressed workers: women’s limited scope of action in the patriarchal system. Through the usurpation of potentiating positions of power – the mistress first, the sovereign second – Black femininity is calling for an uprising. Dodd (2010) points out that the maid, who is expected to disappear, unseen and unheard, into the background of private life and thus remained socially and culturally invisible for a long time, has assumed the center stage, boldly announcing herself to the world in the gallery room. Her visibility in public space was once again enhanced as the sculpture was featured during the 2010 World Cup within the city of Johannesburg on the side of a building as large, photographic mural. To ensure a dominant and imposing presence, Sibande shows the mount in the so-called pesade: Using the horse's body as a shield and its front hooves as a weapon, the rider is erect according to the movement of the rearing horse and is usually depicted in paintings and sculptures as a battling hero with a sword in his hand and a determined expression on his face. “Sophie” can thus certainly be understood as an insurgent and tribute to all Black women fighting for equal rights. But in my reading the absence of a weapon and the daydreaming character of the human figure, which has her eyes closed as if in trance, break with art historical tradition and expose the scene as an objectification of inner desires and empowering imaginations. The overcoming of class and gender boundaries as well as of limitations, that history has placed on identity, still more of a wishful thinking than an actual condition. This is also evident in the ambivalent figure of the horse, which on the one hand symbolizes the momentum of the protest movement, but on the other hand can also be interpreted as the oppressive system that must be made compliant. While circling the sculpture, it becomes visible, that the dynamics of the animal are not necessarily reflected in the rider’s posture. In a fragile intermediate state, half falling, half vaulting, she presents herself to the viewer from one side as if she were controlling the horse, and from the other as if she would be thrown off at any moment. The Black woman exploring options in the political and social field is thus in a constant balancing act between control and loss of control, combat and lethargy, fiction and reality.


    In the large scale work The Reign, Mary Sibande calls on the elaborate attire of the Victorian era to, in some way, refashion our contemporary thinking about the past in relation to the present. She is intent on collapsing binaries around race and power, and alerting us by means of the textile, which is a linchpin of identitarian negotiations, to unexpected interplays between apparently oppositional and asymmetrically related cultures; the plastic body thereby serves in accordance with the functionality of the mannequin as an accessory that reinforces the statement. Clothing is used performatively and, in addition to the cultural reappraisal of national history on the macro level, functions on the micro level as a vehicle of expression and personal search for the artists own postcolonial identity.



    • Bosch, Tanja / McLeod Caitlin: Dress, Address and Redress. The relationships between female domestic workers and their employers in Cape Town South Africa, in: Global Media Journal African Edition, Vol. 9 (2015), p. 134-155.
    • Corrigall, Mary: Sartorial excess in Mary Sibande's “Sophie”, in: Critical Arts 29 (2015), p. 146–164.
    • Dodd, Alexandra: Dressed to thrill. The Victorian postmodern and counter archival imaginings in the work of Mary Sibande, in: Critical Arts 24 (2010), p. 467–473.
    • Long Live the Dead Queen (Exhibition Catalogue). Gallery MOMO Johannesburg 2010, Johannesburg 2010.
    Avitha Sooful
    Avitha Sooful

    In my reading of this work, I am tempted to and almost seduced by the immediate crutch of a colonial critique that is rooted in positioning the rider and horse within a Eurocentric frame. Instead, I re-read the words spoken by the artist Mary Sibande in an interview held with Malibongwe Tyilo (2021) from the Daily Maverick that crystalises Sibande’s thinking. “My work is not about complaining about apartheid, or an invitation to feel sorry for me because I am black and my mothers were maids. It is about celebrating what we are as women in South Africa today, and for us to celebrate we need to go back, to see what we are celebrating. To celebrate, I needed to bring this maid” (Tyilo 2021).


    In summary, Sibande speaks of celebrating black women today and this is vested in the courage that black women had during apartheid to protest against such experiences. It was my responsibility as a researcher to seek out these celebratory moments that Sibande speaks about in her work. In response to the sculpture The Reign (2010), the artist portrayed Sophie riding a black horse that stands on its hind legs referred to as rearing. The rearing of a horse is associated with aggression, disobedience, or pain that is experienced by the animal and in this case, the horse appears to be a mare rather than a stallion. The rearing can also be caused by an inexperienced rider however, it appears that Sophie is calm and in full control of the horse that she rides. Would this animal not be a metaphor for all black women during apartheid in celebration of their aggression, disobedience and pain endured while facing the inhumanity that was meted out to them? In retaining this thought, would Sophie then not be a symbol for all the black female leaders who led the women’s struggle during apartheid and who were also labourers on the farms and domestic workers in cities?


    I think that Sibande deliberately played with the pronunciation of the words reign and rein when she titled the work. On the one hand, the work references the reign of black women who were revered as queens when they marched and protested their abuse. The fact that they were severely undermined by apartheid restrictions made them more militant than men. During the years of abuse under apartheid, anger festered within black women, giving rise to 60 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956, a protest against the pass laws and the 1957 Public Utility Transport Corporation (PUTCO) bus boycott which began in Alexandra. Women also formed the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW) in 1983, The Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW) in 1984 and the United Democratic Front Women’s Congress (UDFWC) in 1987. Women as members of these organisations protested and marched against high rents, increased food prices and demanded the release of incarcerated black leaders.


    Sibande also references rein in this work that indicates the control that the rider has on the horse or the female leadership over the thousands of women who marched on apartheid via protest marches and the formation of women’s organisations. This idea of control via the use of a rein is indicated by the blue length of the rein attached to the horse that Sophie loosely holds in her hands. This shows that Sophie does not require or impose an aggressive response to the rearing horse but allows the horse to perform as Sophie does sitting on its back. In this paused moment, control is about leadership that is asserted without force.


    The Reign (2010) appears to include the seeds of democracy with Sibande’s use of the purple undergarment that the rider wears. This introductory period would be 1989 into the 1990s when the African National Congress and many other anti-apartheid organisations were unbanned, and many political prisoners were released including Nelson Mandela which allows for the greater celebratory moments that Sibande refers to. The year 1989 is significant apart from it being the year when violent protests took place nationally, in schools, universities and on the streets. It was the year when the police used purple dye in water cannons to spray protestors, a dye that did not wash off easily and was referred to as the purple rain.


    When one considers the idea of protest during apartheid, it was a performance by a mass of people, a performance that included song, dance, body gestures and movements that emulated, ridiculed, and promoted a different approach to the ‘norm’. The rearing horse is a performance indicative of the protests that fuelled the journey to democracy. A journey that demanded sacrifices from black people of their time, lives and brutality that can only be imagined. In my view, the meters of the blue dress that Sophie wears is a metaphor for the millions of workers who participated in this struggle. The sculpture is a metaphor for the black female struggle during apartheid, her struggle against patriarchy and a demand for equality that was situated within the broader apartheid struggle. These two struggles gave birth to the adoption of the Women's Charter (1954) and the Freedom Charter (1955) in Kliptown, Soweto.


    There is no doubt that the work is a critique against colonial rule however, the manner in which Sibande has invented and presented the work, is saturated with the achievements of black women within metaphors of significance that describe the black female struggle without pity. It celebrates black female achievements in eroding the inhumanity imposed by apartheid specifically on women who endured the slurs and oppression of race, class and gender.


    The fact that Sophie sits with her eyes closed, allows her to reminisce about the periods that announced the celebration of black women’s victories against the apartheid beast through women’s protests, boycotts, arrests, torture, fragmented family lives and mass marches. The domestic attire is Sibande’s prop for the historical enactments that define black women’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid.  


    In my view, Sibande’s work The Reign has encapsulated black women’s struggle not only against apartheid but their right to equality within a South African democracy.



    • Tyilo, M. 2021 Iconic South African Works: Mary Sibande’s ‘The Reign’. Daily Maverick. 22 June (online)