Mary Sibande's "Sophie/Elsie" sculpture anchors UMMA's African art gallery


Mary Sibande, Sophie/Elsie, fiberglass and cotton, 2009. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

Mary Sibande, Sophie/Elsie, fiberglass and cotton, 2009. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

Sophie/Elsie is a striking sculptural figure, vibrant and visible from a distance, a colorful, bright beacon in the newly expanded and reopened African galleries at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Johannesburg-based artist Mary Sibande’s fiberglass sculpture, created in 2009, and initially on display during UMMA’s closure, is now permanently installed. In the early days of the museum’s closure, Sophie/Elsie was visible from outside the galleries—then, construction came, and she was no longer visible from outside.

But Sophie/Elsie is once again on display in the reimagined space of UMMA’s African galleries. Along with works by Jon Onye Lockard, Shani Peters, Jacob Lawrence, and many more, Sibande’s sculpture brings new life to the gallery space as part of the ongoing initiative We Write to You About Africa, in which “contemporary African artists, scholars, and curators will be asked to write about their work on postcards, in their first language, and mail them to UMMA where they will be displayed alongside their works.”

The reinstallation—including a gallery extension—is now open to visitors in the Robert and Lillian Montalto Bohlen Gallery of African art and Alfred A Taubman Gallery II.

The dual naming in Sibande’s sculpture has multiple dimensions. First, Sibande’s use of the name “Sophie” is an ongoing project, in which Sibande has created a series of varying Sophie sculptures, each representing an “alter-ego." UMMA curators note that Sophie appears “in various uniforms that resemble the dresses worn by domestic workers,” but “while closing her eyes, Sophie imagines herself as an orchestra conductor, as a superhero, as a businesswoman.” By altering small details in the clothing design, Sibande plays with history by creating new narratives, which she describes on her website as “not just a political act, but one of transformation, as Sophie takes on new incarnations of herself unbound from the laboured history of servitude.”

This history is further explained on the artist’s website:

Sibande’s work not only engages as an interrogator of the current intersections of race, gender and labour in South Africa; but continues to actively rewrite her own family’s legacy of forced domestic work imposed by the then Apartheid State. Sibande employs the human form as a vehicle through photography and sculpture as a focused critique on the stereotypical depictions of women, particularly black women in South Africa. The body, for Sibande, and particularly how we clothe it, is the site where this history is contested and where Sibande’s own fantasies can play out.

Sibande employs a limited but vibrant palette in her depictions of Sophie, frequently using shades of bright blue, red, and purple. Her subjects are all interrelated iterations of the alter-ego Sophie, which work to question and disrupt past, present, and future.

Second, Sophie appears here as Elsie, a tribute to Sibande’s grandmother. However, the name “Elsie” was not her grandmother’s given name. She was not known by that name until she was assigned the name “because her masters couldn’t be bothered to learn her African name.”

In this iteration of Sophie/Elsie, the subject is adorned with a bright blue maid’s gown accented in white and bright red. She is described on the exhibition page: “Here, her maid’s uniform transforms into the dress of a Victorian queen, complete with billowing cape and dramatic train.”

While the apron and bonnet reference domestic labor, the fabric design echoes historical ideas of regality, upending expectations and historical narratives. The circular form of the dress pools around Sophie/Elsie’s feet, the dress almost engulfing her and forming a visual pedestal. 

Sibande is not a newcomer to UMMA’s galleries. In 2013, she installed another Sophie sculpture as part of a fellowship at the University of Michigan. In the installation Long Live the Dead Queen, Sophie appears in a maid’s uniform, clutching a blue “Superman” shirt. One of Sophie’s most well-known alter-egos, the piece was created after Sophie/Elsie, which was done four years prior. Now, in 2021, Sophie/Elsie is a permanent part of UMMA’s collection and will greet visitors for years to come.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.