Narratives in Cloth - The artist book as symbolic expression of cultural knowledge

In Africa when an old person dies it is as if a library has burned.” The words of Malian philosopher, Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900 -1991), struck a deep chord.

I have a profound engagement with indigenous knowledge, especially the traditional skills and crafts of cultures of the world.

To me, the riparian zone, where water meets land, is a metaphor for cultures that meet. It is a zone that is fertile and fascinating - exchanges of growth and promise, but conversely also of competition and conflict exist.  Thoughts are exchanged and choices are made - to collide or collaborate.

During the late 1980’s I did skills training, e.g. stitching, embroidery, beadwork, basket weaving, screen-printing, candle making in the Blouberg area of Limpopo.

Working and communicating with Northern Sotho speaking women over a period of more than 20 years exposed me to many facets of their culture and way of life  – daily routines; rearing children; habits, customs and rituals; dress & adornment; diet, food sources, recipes and the preparation of food; music, songs and performance; governance; beliefs and religion; health and healing; as well as their diverse indigenous craft art skills and their remarkable courage. I was fascinated to see them enjoy eating Mopani worms, locusts, flying ants - dishes that were totally foreign to a born and bred Capetonian.

I was prompted to document aspects of their culture and commenced with a research project - The collection, documentation, categorisation, contextualisation, preservation and dissemination of contemporary Northern Sotho (Bapedi, Hananwa, Batlokwa and Babirwa) oral culture in the Blouberg area of Limpopo Province. I asked more directed questions with regard to the practice of everyday life in the villages. As a result of not sharing a mutual language as well as low levels of functional literacy, orality is translated into images that are hand drawn on cloth and then hand embroidered. They draw in their style and compose the panels.

Thereafter the Northern Sotho (Sesotho sa Leboa) text is painstakingly written on paper and/or cloth by three women with basic literacy skills and also embroidered. We sit together to translate the texts into English and women who are illiterate often embroider these. An example is the word    in the Locust (Food & Recipe) book. As a result of keen interest of researchers and collectors, I decided to translate certain texts into German, French, and Braille. The braille texts appropriate the well-known ‘Blind Alphabet” which brought world fame to the artist, Willem Boshoff.

During 2006, electricity and cell phone reception was introduced into the remote area of Blouberg, roughly stretching from Mogalakwena Craft Art Village to Bochum (Senbawarbana). Today this area bears witness to the stark contrast between modern urban and traditional rural values. This strong interplay between different value systems provides a culturally rich environment for research. These embroidered cloths speak of an ‘era’ that is fast disappearing, but is kept alive by the Mogalakwena embroiderers documenting their culture.

More than 500 hand embroidered panels and texts are included in the ethnographic art collection and could be one of the largest repositories of its kind in South Africa.

I stitched and bound some of the panels to create 20 hand embroidered artist books. The binding of embroidered cloths, which documents old traditions in book form, is relatively new in South Africa. The artist books created by the French artist, Louis Bourgeois, inspired me. She cut some of her old clothes to create the pages on which she wrote and embroidered.

The exceptional knowledge, illustrated by way of embroidery, of people living in the remote Blouberg area deserves recognition and respect through scientific documentation and publication, as well as curated exhibitions, the broad domain of a visual language.

This project aims to create an archive for future generations as well as contribute towards nation building.


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