Theme: Designing with Compassion
For more than 26 years, Dr Elbé Coetsee has dedicated her work to South Africa’s artisanal crafts. As well as being the author of two books, Craft Art in South Africa (Struik, 2002) and Craft Art in South Africa: Creative Intersections (Jonathan Ball, 2015), she is the founder of the Mogalakwena Craft Art Development Foundation, an entity she formally registered in 1994 so that, as she says, “it can carry on even after I’m gone”. The foundation, based in Limpopo, has a craft art village near the banks of the Mogalakwena River, on the Coetsee family farm that also comprises Mogalakwena River Lodge, an artists’ retreat, research centre, bush camp and factory for natural botanical products. The creative village itself employs 10 craftspeople permanently, who develop a range of items – from brooms and woven sandals to embroidered napkins and hand towels.
“My husband and I used to come to the farm once a month,” Coetsee explains of how she first met people from the remote villages on the opposite banks of the river, just a bridge crossing away. “The women would come ask for work, but they’d finish quickly, so I started teaching them beading and embroidery. One of the older women taught us the basics of weaving, and we took it further. It was all very fascinating, and we started weaving baskets and placemats, and then my friends started placing orders.” Suddenly they had a business, and the foundation was soon attracting top designers who wanted to collaborate with the talented women.
In 2004, leading South African designer Haldane Martin spent some time at Mogalakwena. “His Zulu Mama chair was born here,” Coetsee says of his popular rounded café chair inspired by African basketry and woven by the Mogalakwena team. “Italian designer Paola Lenti also spent time with us developing her iconic Afra chair – a very big, upside-down basket which is pushed down over a frame.” The chair is completely handwoven in cord.
The Mogalakwena Craft Art Development Foundation aims to restore, develop and promote traditional craft art skills from South Africa while supporting the economic and social upliftment of the remote rural community with which it works, where poverty and HIV are rife. Although the women earn an income from the sale of the products – these are on sale at Montebello
Design Centre in Cape Town and Ebony/Curated in Franschhoek, and are also exported to the UK, France and the US – Coetsee says that there’s something just as important to her team as the money received. “This work gives people recognition, and allows them to feel respected.”
She believes Mogalakwena to be the biggest multi-skilled project in South Africa, with all its employees able to do everything from beading and embroidery to knitting, crocheting and basket weaving. The foundation has trained over 250 craft artists, and has also offered creative workshops to more than 200 learners from the area. Many of these upskilled people are enlisted when big orders are received. Close on 70-years old, Coetsee is showing no signs of slowing down her work. “I am passionate about handcraft,” she says. “I just love what I am doing.”
100 Beautiful Things is presented by the V&A Waterfront in celebration of South Africa’s creativity, compassion, ingenuity and resilience. Every week we will be showcasing five amazingly beautiful creative things that make us proud. It is curated in partnership with Platform Creative.