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​​Joburg is 'a stage for dreams'
​​images (2).jpgMary Sibande came to Jozi with a suitcase full of dreams - and some of them have certainly come true for this astonishing young artist.

FOR artist Mary Sibande, Joburg is like a stage where dreams can come true. "Joburg is a place where I came to with a suitcase full of dreams, which could come true," she says.

Sibande is a small-town girl - she was born and grew up in Barberton in Mpumalanga, where she lived with her grandmother until she finished matric. Then she joined her mother in Joburg.

​"I had big dreams in Barberton, which became small dreams, which happens in all small towns. But Joburg gives you another stage on which dreams can come true."

Sibande's dreams certainly seem to have come true in the big city. She has been producing various interpretations of a three-dimensional portrayal of a Victorian maid named Sophie, for the past four years. Earlier this year she was chosen to have 19 large images of her works emblazoned on buildings in the inner city, in a project called Joburg Art City.

Sibande was overwhelmed. "I haven't the words for it," she says. "It is beyond exciting."

Her work, which portrays different generations of her family as maids, is a fantasy of Victorian fluffiness in royal blue or purple dresses with puckered sleeves, offset by pure white apron and doek. The richness of the image is a way of escaping from the real world for the maid Sophie.

Sibande's work was chosen for the art city project because the works speak to one another - there is a theme running throughout them, and that theme is Sophie.

Monna Mokoena of Gallery Momo, where Sibande's art has been exhibited, says: "I am tremendously pleased to see Mary literally making it this big. She is one of our most talented young practitioners, celebrated here and abroad and now we have a democratic exhibition where people who don't hang out in galleries can enjoy her work."

Her life-size Sophie figure, always a very dark-skinned woman modelled on herself, is enveloped in metres of fabric, a comment on stereotypical depictions of black women in South African society. The figures are made of resin and black-painted fibreglass, dressed in typical Victorian style, with bustle and pleats.

"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," Sibande says.

Another accolade has come her way: she has been selected, together with 23 international artists, to submit entries for the UN Campus in Bonn, in Germany. The competition was initiated by the United Nations and artists have been selected from Europe, the US, South America and Asia. The works will be displayed in the stairwell, atrium and foyer of the building.

Downtown Joburg
The 28-year-old Sibande lives in downtown Joburg, in a trendy refurbished building called August House, a base for several Joburg artists. She has a fine arts degree from the University of Johannesburg, and held her first solo exhibition in 2006, at the Godart Gallery in Melville. This was followed by two more exhibitions: at Gallery Momo in 2009, and at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year.

She has participated in about a dozen group exhibitions since 2005, and in four residencies - in Paris, Basel in Switzerland, New York, and Sylt in Germany.

Sibande's work appeared at the Joburg Art Fair in 2009 and again this year, where Sophie appeared on a rearing bronze horse, making a striking figure, in a work called The Reign. In it, the maid Sophie is in charge - sitting confidently astride a large stallion, in an almost warlike pose.

One of her works appeared in the Space: Currencies in Contemporary Art exhibition at Museum Africa, sponsored by the City, that ran for the duration of the World Cup.

As Sophie has developed, the artworks have taken on different poses and titles: They don't make them like they used to; I'm a lady; Caught up in the rapture; I put a spell on me; The wait seems to go on forever; Her Majesty, Queen Sophie; and I have not, I have.

Steven Sack, the director of the City's arts, culture and heritage department, supports Joburg Art City and the choice of artist for the project. "Her work is very appropriate; she is a good choice," he says - and he anticipates that they will make the city beautiful.​