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Beautiful and powerful Sophie: Visual storytelling on campus

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ANN ARBOR—Sophie, a character created by South African artist Mary Sibande, is featured in various art forms across the University of Michigan campus.

A 6-foot-tall black maid dressed in elaborate and colorful costumes, Sophie is presented in textiles in strong blues, purple and orange in sculptures, posters, subway-style murals, photographs in a way designed to ignite thought-provoking discussion about gender, class and race in post-colonial South Africa and beyond.

Sibande, a recent Kidder Resident in the Arts at the U-M Institute for the Humanities, was born in South Africa when the apartheid segregationist system was falling apart—and with it her own family history. Three generations of her family before her were servants in the houses of white families. She graduated in 2007 with a degree in visual art from the University of Johannesburg.

Some have called her installations a "poetic gentle slap in the face." Juliet Hinelly, a doctoral candidate at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art  & Design, says Sibande's work makes her think of "the structures underneath the society, the people that do the work, that do the unjust work that keeps us moving."

Hinelly, like other Stamps students, sees Sophie every day on her way to classes when she passes the Slusser Gallery, visibly integrated throughout the hall.

"It brings history into an overwhelming visibility," she said.

Amanda Krugliak, arts curator for the Institute for the Humanities, says Sibande's presence on campus integrates art into the students' everyday comings and goings.

"Each facet of this sprawling project offered a different experience, presenting Sibande's work in different contexts," she said.

The exhibition of graphic prints in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies DAAS Gallery, as well as a talk with Sibande, brought new audiences into a dynamic space, Krugliak said. The video documentation of the artist inhabited the communal space of the library, offering behind-the-scenes footage of each exhibit.

The Institute for the Humanities Gallery became a laboratory of sorts and is left now with one of the most powerful of all installations, she said. In a darker room, the sound of a woman humming a lullaby fills the air—a lullaby Sibande heard from her mother as a baby.

"Sibande's impact on campus was beyond anything we could have expected, " Krugliak said. "Her work resonated with students in an extraordinary way, with issues they cared about. It felt real to them, rather than in the abstract. It seemed very personal to so many."

Sibande On Campus is sponsored by the Institute for Humanities and supported in part by the Stamps School of Art & Design, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, U-M Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

 

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