Weaving Culture

Embroidered tales of daily life

I have an overwhelming passion for craft art. The very tactile qualities of a hand crafted object fascinate me. I never imagined that one day this passion would allow me to found and direct a craft art centre, an artist’s retreat, a research centre and a gallery.

In the late 1980s our family acquired land in a remote part of the northern Limpopo Province of South Africa, the Blouberg district. Initially the land was farmed with cattle and game. This farm is situated adjacent to the area that was formerly known as Lebowa Tribal Trustland, home to more than one and a half million Northern Sotho-speaking people.

Having studied Home Economics at Stellenbosch University I enjoyed doing embroidery, screen printing, beading, candle making and weaving with the farm workers’ wives. What were at the outset hobbies, quickly evolved. In 1994 I established the Mogalakwena Craft Art Development Foundation to create employment opportunities for disadvantaged women living in rural villages under the authority of traditional tribal chiefs; promote and redevelop traditional rural craft arts which had become dormant as a result of poverty; enable increasing members of the community to become economically self-sufficient; record and preserve indigenous living oral cultures in the district; and nurture and develop creativity in children living in remote rural communities.

Working and communicating with women who live in the remote Blouberg area of the Limpopo Province of South Africa for more than 20 years has exposed me to an abundance of intriguing aspects of their culture—what plants to collect for weaving baskets and mats; how to dig and prepare clay to coil pots; which trees or shrubs provide appropriate fire wood; how to catch frogs, Mopani worms or flying ants and prepare a delicious meal; what roots, leaves or bark are used for remedies; how they mourn the dead; the role of totem animals—all of which I found fascinating. As these old bits of life-knowledge are mainly part of an oral culture, I truly believe they should be documented for future generations.

In 2000, Mogalakwena Craft Art commenced stitching pictures and words on fabric, depicting aspects of daily life in this remote area. Using locally sourced cotton and natural as base cloths, the women at Mogalakwena Craft Art started embroidering The narratives exploring and documenting cultural knowledge and practices of people living in the remote Blouberg area of Limpopo. Sometimes they also involve fabric appliqué. The women’s embroideries of village life are unique in the way that they call on floss to serve as their “paint.” I think they look very South African in a way, though the technique was brought to South Africa by early European missionaries.

The panels are deeply emotional and provide a true bridge between cultures. For example, Lisa Ngoepe has embroidered (“painted”) a panel depicting setshila, mourning the death of a husband. The family shaves the hair of the widow, and dresses her in a  dark dress and matching head scarf. She has to wear the same dress every day for six months, wash it in the evenings, and put on again the next day. This dress becomes frayed and worn, which I have seen when another crafter did setshila. I asked her to sell me the very tattered dress when she completed the six months, as I wanted to sew the washed, beautifully frayed garment onto a backing fabric and have it stretched like a canvas/artwork, but she was not allowed. At the end of setshila the dress is burnt by her late husband’s family to mark the end of mourning.

The great value of these textile artifacts is that the women are really 'sewing' their history on cloth. The embroidered textile panels are also hand-bound into books, such as Book on Health (traditional remedies), Book on Governance, Book on Customs, Book on Education, Book on Religion, Book on Trade, many recipe books, and more. In the past, history and history books were written by 'educated' people and mainly by men, but in with these embroidered textile books the history is written by illiterate and functionally illiterate women who are very capable of tell their stories. The embroideries are their voices telling the world about their life, their culture and history.

Mogalakwena Craft Art continues to grow and develop. We weave traditional and contemporary baskets and weave the iconic Afra chairs and baskets for Italian designer, Paola Lenti. We embroider and bead traditional and contemporary works, and collaborate with local and international artists and designers. In these works of art, orality is translated into images. We refer to the embroidered artworks as “culture panels” and “artists’ books”. The images are first drawn on cloth and then hand embroidered. Thereafter the Northern Sotho text is provided by three craft artists with literacy skills. Finally the text is painstakingly translated into English and both texts are hand embroidered. Some of the texts are also translated into German, French and Braille.

We are currently working with researchers from all over the world on the documentation and archiving of indigenous knowledge. Although the craft women initially thought that I was a strange white woman showing interest in their way of life, they over the years developed such pride in their work, documenting their culture that I was given a Northern Sotho name, Mmasechaba meaning “mother of the nation”. They are now eager to exhibit the embroidered panels to visitors to the Craft Art Centre, the Research Centre for African Ecology & Anthropology and to the Artists’ Retreat.

I fully subscribe to the thought of Florence Dibell Bartlett, founder of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who once said, “The art of the craftsman is a bond between the peoples of the world.”

Elbe Coetsee is the founder of Mogalakwena and author of Craft Art in South Africa.

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