Mary Sibande

With furious energy and head held high, an African woman races forward. Adorned in Victorian dress she radiates courage and power. Dogs of war advance under her command. Let slip the dogs of war is a tableau vivant embodying the physical, emotional and psychological evolution of Mary Sibande’s alter-ego, Sophie. Sophie’s body is the site of imagined trauma which the majority of South Africans would have experienced under apartheid. Through various stages of morphing into an unnamed purple figure, she is the ethereal made real. Often violent and combustive in nature, these transformations explode into alien matter whose materiality is an exploration of pain. By the time the ironworks of Avesta were erected, the colonization of South Africa had been underway for two hundred years. Across the Atlantic, the United States was still quaking from its Civil War which had brought an end to slavery and yet the road to equality and human dignity has proven to be a long one. Pain often lingers beyond the activating/initiating event, inhabiting a more sinister and dangerous space. This trauma is expressed in memory, posture and gesture. Latent, unexplored pain maintains a militant stance, fending off that which is confrontational in this work of Mary Sibande’s. The work explores objectified pain and hints at the many forms of violence that are embedded in South African history, one of these being the ‘Police Dog’, usually a German Shepard. Pain and specifically trauma has been the primary and distinct experience of the majority of black South Africans throughout the country’s colonial and apartheid history. The normalization of this experience over generations has dulled the experience of pain for many black South Africans. The emergence and celebration of a rainbow nation further served to mask this pain, but signifiers remain. South African Police dogs trained to tear limbs and rip through the flesh of black South Africans under apartheid are one such signifier. Behind the jubilant celebration of ‘freedom’ the people’s pain remains latent, now ‘performed’ as memory or a collective bad dream. This work attempts to address and capture the emotions that were a daily occurrence for the majority of South Africans under apartheid. Traditionally the dog of choice for the South African Police was the German Shepherd specifically bred for this purpose; in this work they are replaced by the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier affectionately known as Jock of the Bushveld, famed through stories by author James Percy FitzPatrick, this dog is known for unwavering loyalty to its owners. The Jock of the Bushveld story was set around the town of Barberton, where Mary Sibande was born and grew up and has been immortalized in bronze outside the Town Hall. Staffordshire Bull Terriers are not generally aggressive, but they are considered loyal and respond well to commands. In the installation, Let slip the dogs of war, the dogs and the vultures are now under the command of the mythic purple figure. These animals have lost all of their innocence and appear to be individual and dangerous as they are intent on an invisible target, with bared teeth and tension in their bodies. The purple figure, as both the instigator and protagonist, is followed by the rest of the combatant that consists of non-winged ceiling beings, dogs and confrontational vultures; symbolizing a collective aggression ready for physical devastation. The work suggests that any rebuilding or moving forward demands some kind of destruction.