SA craft: The past and present


No doubt about it – South Africans are a crafty bunch. The country’s people produce a remarkable range of arts and crafts, working from the pavements and markets of the big cities to deep rural enclaves, with every possible form of traditional artwork – and then some.There’s a lot of new work in traditional media, with artists constantly developing the African crafts repertoire. These range from pretty tableware, Christmas tree decorations and magnificent embroidered cloths to the simplest of items, such as keyrings and candleholders.

With characteristic inventiveness, South Africans have adapted every possible medium to a market that feeds both locals and tourists.In addition to the standard materials such as beads, grass, leather, fabric and clay, pieces are made using telephone wire, plastic bags, petrol cans and bottle tops – even food tin labels are used to create brightly coloured papier mache bowls.On sale on many a South African street corner are objects made of wire, ranging from representations of the globe to cars and motorcycles – which are capable of manipulated movement – to joke cellphones and working radios.Shops, markets and collectives dealing in African craft are thriving, providing much-needed employment and income in communities such as Fugitive’s Drift in KwaZulu-Natal, which offers a huge variety of basketry, or the Northern Cape Schmidtsdrift community of displaced San people, who produce paintings that constitute an imaginative and highly coloured extension of ancient rock art.

Folk art, high art

South African folk art is also making inroads into Western-style “high art”. The work of ceramicist Bonnie Ntshalintshali, with its almost phantasmagoric detail, has gone well beyond the confines of traditional African pottery – yet her works could still be used at your table.Sculptor Phutuma Seoka is another artist who has taken a traditional form and given it a personal twist. In his case, the carving of figures using the inherent curves and forks of tree branches, common in the Venda region, is used to creating a cast of eccentric characters.Some South African artists in the folk art mode have come up with ideas quite out of left field – like the late Chickenman Mkize, who made (now highly valued) mock roadsigns out of cheap materials, emblazoning them with eccentric messages.The fact that Mkize was illiterate, and was transcribing words written out by others without noting the spaces between the words, adds to the charm of the works. One of them declares “NODRUNK ENBUMS”; another asks, pertinently, “BUTISI TART?”The Ndebele tradition of house-painting, part of the widespread African practice of painting or decorating the exteriors of homes, burgeoned amazingly with the advent of commercial paints.It also gave rise to artists such as Esther Mahlangu, who has put her adaptations of the distinctive, highly coloured geometric Ndebele designs on everything from cars to aeroplanes.By way of an enlightening contrast, as well as a pure visual feast, there are many Ndebele villages to be visited in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces – and the distinctive Ndebele style has been extended beautifully to beadwork.

From traditional to commercial

A high level of skill is brought to the production of work that has long been a part of African society, and has now found new commercial outlets.South African beadwork, once the insignia of tribal royalty alone, has today found a huge range of applications, from the creation of coverings for everything from bottles to matchboxes – and the reproduction of the red Aids ribbon in the form of small Zulu beadworks known as Zulu love letters.Basketry and ceramics, of course, were long ago brought to a pitch of perfection in traditional South African society, and the outgrowths of these forms today grace gallery plinths as often as they find a place on suburban shelves.There are several important collections of African art in South Africa, such as the Standard Bank collection at the Gertrude Posel Gallery at Wits University in Johannesburg, or the Durban Art Gallery, housing works of historical and anthropological significance.There can be few other places in the world where you can see this variety of African arts and crafts, whether they be masks made in one of the continent’s many styles, or carved chairs, or embroidered or appliqué cloths.At the Rooftop Market at Johannesburg’s Rosebank Mall, and at its African Craft Market, work from all over the continent jostles for buyers’ attention. Many merchants and organisations sell craft goods online: check out the brief list of links at rightBeadwork

Amaphotho, an apron worn by married Ndebele women for less formal events Ndebele artwork Toy Harley Davidson motorbike, helicopter and Beetle car made from wire Zulu craftwork, KwaZulu-Natal
North Sotho apron made from beads and string Ricksha driver in elaborately beaded and painted headdress Paper machè bowl made from sardine tin labels Peaked cap made out of Coca-Cola cans
Beaded ties, made by a crafts collective in the Midlands area of KwaZulu-Natal Bread pot made from telephone wire Wood carving of a mineworker Isiphephetu, Ndebele apron worn by young women
Decorative bowl incorporating a variety of shiny beads, made by a KZN crafts collective Decorative house in the Golden Gate area of the Free State Embroidered wall hanging Youngsters with home-made guitars in Hanover, Northern Cape
Day of Freedom, a beadwork image showing Nelson Mandela casting his vote Handpainted paper machè fish ornament Wall hangings and decorative shirts at Mama Africa bar and restaurant in Cape Town Ndebele woman wearing traditional neck rings and jewellery outside a decorated homestead
Painted cloth wall hanging Bowls made from telephone wire Telephone-wire bowl Decorated ricksha cart, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal
Baskets for sale at a market in Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu-Natal Xhosa woman weaving a tapestry, Western Cape Xhosa boys with home-made wire cars, Eastern Cape African crafts, Mpumalanga
Guineafowl ornaments, Limpopo Crafts for sale Wooden sculpture in a curio shop Plate holder made from telephone wire
Exotic bird made from wire and beads Itshogolo, an elaborate apron worn by married Ndebele women for special occasions Decorated house in a Basotho cultural village, Free State Ndebele design
Decorated Basotho homestead, Free State Embroidered wall hanging by Jane Msibi Buck ornament made from recycled plastic packaging Beadwork
Handmade woollen carpet Pink pigs made from wire and beads Woman weaving baskets at Cathedral Peak, KwaZulu-Natal Beadwork

Source: southafricainfo 

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