A special project in collaboration with Mary Sibande to be presented at the FNB Joburg Art Fair 23-25 September 2011 Mary Sibande has been commissioned by Pirelli to create an artwork focusing on the theme “Rubber Soul”. Mary will create a piece inspired by what was presented at the exhibition curated by the Fondazione Pirelli…

A special project in collaboration with Mary Sibande to be presented at the FNB Joburg Art Fair 23-25 September 2011

Mary Sibande has been commissioned by Pirelli to create an artwork focusing on the theme “Rubber Soul”. Mary will create a piece inspired by what was presented at the exhibition curated by the Fondazione Pirelli and hosted from June 21 to July 24 2011 by Triennale di Milano museum

Mary Sibande

Pirelli’s history in technology and innovation and a spirit of functionality and practicality have found an elegance of style through fashion over the last century.  Pirelli tyres, soles, heels, bathing caps and elasticated fabrics used in swimwear over the years are evidence of the brand’s commitment to the material element and nature of the dreams and lives of generations.

Rubber in all its forms has proved to be both practical (durable) and glamorous, a substance that has the power through its flexibility and many forms, to link the ethereal with the seemingly mundane – dreams, which make life worth living. The possibility and probability of aspiration is not only fuelled but moulded by the material conditions of life.  Pirelli has sought to, through its diversity of products and experimental approach to development, encourage and enrich the ambitions of individuals and offer a better life in these terms.

With this in mind Mary Sibande has conceptualised “Rubber soul:  Monument of Aspiration” (2011) as a thoughtful reflection on these embedded values, their implications and the themes and ideas explored in her own pre-existing works.

Pirelli’s history is strongly linked with culture, art and obviously with technology, which in its most innovative form, creates materials and shapes. Sophie is now part of the group of celebrated ambassadors of the Pirelli brand.

Mary Sibande Pirelli Sculpture

Background: Mary’s Oeuvre (2007 – 2010)

Mary Sibande’s early work was personal and autobiographic, centred around engendering self-reflexive linkages between post-apartheid South African identity politics and fashion. By bringing together these concepts she was able to highlight the complexities of class distinctions in contemporary South African society – especially investigating the aspirations of young black South African women in relation to the previous generation.

In the body of work produced between 2009 -2010 Sibande created the fictional character “Sophie”, a hybrid figure that has brought together her own concerns as a young, aspiring black woman and her background as the daughter of a domestic servant.

The sculptures produced here reveal the radical disjunctions that exist in contemporary South Africa between traditional, modern, and post modern formulations of “blackness” and “womanness”.  This theme was further developed in her contribution to the 2011 Venice Biennale, celebrating the power and endurance of black women of the older generation.  If aspiration is rooted in economics (capability) and identity is rooted in cultural history (essence) it is reasonable to say that the materialisation of these two things, in tension, will be fraught in that it represents the ever becoming business of desire.

Circumstances and conditions create and impact the capacity to aspire, the range and complexity of the expression of those desires.  Sophie is both the representation of the desires/stasis of the domestic worker and the representation of a young, aspirant, modern black woman. This “hybrid” is that emblem of mixed desire.

Mary’s new work: “Rubber Soul: Monument of Aspiration” (2011)

In this compelling, new work “Rubber Soul: Monument of Aspiration” (2011),  Sibande  “retreads” her earlier ideas, in the sense of looking back, or over her shoulder (as it were) at the explorations and celebrations of earlier works.  In “Rubber Soul: Monument of Aspiration” Sophie is now placed on a pedestal, idealised- a celebrity- about to bow, before her audience.

The monument is both a celebration and an ironic statement about the status of black woman in South African society today. On the one hand, it is about pop culture, celebrity, fashion, status (fleeting things) but on the other, the work also speaks to permanence, monumentality, art, stasis, entrapment.  Is this a symbol of youth and promise “captured” or a symbol of renewed power?

In previous work, Sibande has been centrally preoccupied with notions of stasis and mobility and this is evident in the working process itself. The artist has been using the same moulds to cast her figures since 2007 which she reconfigures and “dresses”, affording her the opportunity to both quote her own personal autobiography and respond to contemporary South African socio/cultural-economic issues.

As has been noted by critical commentators worldwide, economics has asserted itself as the science of the future, with wants, needs and expectations as central, whereas culture’s traditions and customs are very much focused on the past, only hinting at what is imminent through norms and values.

“Rubber Soul: Monument of Aspiration” (2011) goes even further than simply investigating the politics of class and cultural hybridity. It also has a spiritual dimension that is ironized in the title (rubber values?).

In this new work, Sophie is wearing a dress made from Pirelli PZero fabric used in their PZero fashion line, referencing the South African Zion Christian Church (ZCC). She is also, significantly, wearing shoes with Pirelli car tyre rubber soles.  These handmade shoes are well-known, in a South African context, and a powerful symbol of masculine identity and male power in the ZCC as they are worn only by men.

The work highlights the contradiction in the play on the meaning of soul/sole (idealisation of soul vs reality of sole).  This reversal of terms and roles (Sophie is cast as a male preacher) is not new in Mary’s work.

A whole range of power politics (including class, gender and now religious tensions) are expressed through this new work. Sophie has been transformed again.

What was once a symbol of the clashing  and coming together of generations is now, one might say, a more “elastic identity”, a celebration of fashion in faith, an imagined icon, sublimely real, elevated, distant, a disconnected  and powerfully new form. In a collaborative spirit, Pirelli’s several generational influences accommodate “Sophie”. The company’s significance in their research into rubber and its by-products extending into fashion through industrial design influences Sophie’s appearance.

Mary Sibande: Biography

Mary Sibande, born in 1982, lives and works in Johannesburg. She obtained a Diploma in Fine Arts at the Witwatersrand Technikon in 2004 and a B-Tech degree from the University of Johannesburg in 2007. She worked at gordart Gallery for three and a half years as a gallery assistant and as a curator of the Rainforest Project Room. Sibande has taken part in a number of group shows and workshops.

In Sibande’s practice as an artist, she employs the human form as a vehicle through painting and sculpture, to explore the construction of identity in a postcolonial South African context, but also attempt to critique stereotypical depictions of women, particularly black women in our society.

The body, for Sibande, and particularly the skin, and clothing is the site where history is contested and where fantasies play out.  Centrally, she looks at the generational disempowerment of black woman and in this sense her work is informed by postcolonial theory. In her work, the domestic setting acts as a stage where historical psycho-dramas play out.

Sibande’ work also highlights how privileged ideals of beauty and femininity aspired to by black woman discipline their body through rituals of imitation and reproduction. She inverts the social power indexed by Victorian costumes by reconfiguring it as a domestic worker’s “uniform” complexifying the colonial relationship between “slave” and “master” in a post-apartheid context.

The fabric used to produce uniforms for domestic workers is an instantly recognizable sight in domestic spaces in South Africa and by applying it to Victorian dress she attempts to make a comment about history of servitude as it relates to the present in terms of domestic relationships


Mary uses Pirelli’s PZero fabric from their fashion line to create her piece. Pirelli traces its history in clothing and fashion back over a century.

As a line of business it started in 1873, one year after the company was formed, with its first technical articles in rubber.  Already in 1877 its “health wear and haberdashery” products were on the market. They included waterproof clothing: rubber soles, heels, and galoshes, as well as bathing caps and “bathing buoyancy rings”.

While very much in the spirit of functionality and practicality, elegance and style were not lacking, as shown in Pirelli’s graceful selection of ladies overcoats.  Technology, too, was a constant feature of products by the company, which in 1901 patented its first tyre. The 1920s saw the development of special treatments for waterproofing fabrics and in the 1930s output began of “Lastex”, a tough, elastic rubber latex yarn that was thin enough to be woven like normal yarn.

It was in the years after the Second World War, however, that Pirelli clothing really took off.  In the early 1950s a new type of synthetic sole was put on the market. Coria, the “sole for modern-day walking”, combined the qualities of leather and rubber: lightness, toughness, water resistance, and modest pricing.

Assorted models then appeared to cater for various types of walking with different soles and contact surfaces: Accademica, Alpina, and Aprica, when in the mountains, and Belpasso, Viavai, or Lungarno for footing it on the flat. For those who liked walking with a springy step there was Ripple: “it does the walking for you”. For those more concerned with appearance there was Levanto, a sole that elegantly alternated hollow and solid portions.

Since the post-1945 period Pirelli has also led the way in ready-to-wear clothing. In Arona it opened a new manufacturing facility for raincoats and overcoats. Its research into materials yielded groundbreaking patents.

These showed through in the innovations it brought to the market for waterproof fabrics:  its “elastomerized wool”, which included a thin core strata of vulcanized synthetic and natural rubber between two air-filled cotton strata;  its “sporting” item, wool tweed with velvety rubber; and  its “wool rub”, obtained by processing two types of wool with a special treatment.

Lastex, dubbed in the company’s promotion as “a marvel of a yarn”, is used in the production of corsets and bathing costumes that enhance the female shape but at the same time are practical and comfortable.

A fitting endorsement came from an exceptional source:  in 1952, Marilyn Monroe, then a very beautiful model and an actress yet to make her name, posed in advertisements for bathing costumes in Pirelli Lastex yarn.  During the economic boom years Pirelli rubber was a fixture of the trips to the seaside made by Italians: swimming masks, flippers, aqualungs, diving suits, bathing caps, inflatable toys, water mattresses, boats, and inflatable dinghies.  Pirelli was synonymous with the sea – in its myriad aspects, including sailing.

The Pirelli logo badged boat wear in water-resistant fabric. In 1971, in co-operation with the fashion designer, Eva Sabbatini, a new fabric was launched – “Dova”, a waterproofed linen that combined tear resistance with great softness and was used by Sabbatini in a series of models (for powerboats, yachts, water skiing) notable for their futuristic styling, ease of wear for sports activities, and refinement.

The above exemplify the use by Pirelli of original technologies in creating clothing that has quality and elegance. Even today these are the characteristics that distinguish Pirelli Pzero, the brand it devised 125 years ago following the production of its first rubberized raincoat and an industrial design project driven by an experimental zeal in which engineering and performance find a dimension where they can lay claims to glamour.

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