Bulumko Mbete: Delving into the depths of a textile heritage


By Mamelodi Marakalala

Bulumko Mbete was just annouced as the winner of the Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto prize.

Her latest exhibition, I’ve known rivers, was recently exhibited at the Bag Factory. It showcased the culturally and spiritually meaningful artworks of Mbete, who was also the recipeint of the 2023 Cassirer Welz Award. “I’ve known rivers” are the first words of American writer and social activist Langston Hughes’ poem, entitled The Negro Speaks of Rivers. The poem is about a man who has come across many rivers in his lifetime that have revealed to him truths that go as farther as the beginning of the world, and even surpass human existence and human activity. These revelations from across these different rivers became a way not only for him to come into his own being and power, but to also have the capacity to extend his knowledge and strengths to the Black children of future generations. 

This is quite a most fitting theme when you think about the fact that at the heart of Mbete’s artistic practice are the memories she has of her grandfather, all he has achieved as a man of family, and the blankets she inherited from him with which she continues her family legacy. And with her uncle’s recent passing, she felt that a poem of this powerful and sentimental nature could count as a dedication to what he has left behind from the moments of his life. “There are lots of metaphors in this poem about what a single person might have experienced in their time on Earth, things that we don’t even come to know about them that they would have had within themselves. There are elements of African spirituality and ancestry. If you believe in people passing on and coming back in a different way. It is looking at the expansiveness of life,” she said. 

Mbete expresses this notion that the realities, knowledge systems, and identities we hold dear to us is expansive through how she engages with materials and how that materiality presents itself through these complex sheets and structures we can now view as completed and valued art. She dyes fabrics such as silk and cotton with onion skins and imphepho flowers, which have healing properties and are commonly used in traditional healing practices. She has added stitching and beading to create mapping grids, with migration and journeying running through her mind, which reminds us of the South African historical practice of moving from one province to another, from home to a big city, in hopes for certain social rewards and better lives. She acknowledges that being an individual and having the sense of a particular identity do not exist within a vacuum. The self will always be a part of something greater, cultural, spiritual, fluid, and even beyond the atmosphere where the stars reside. 

In the artwork Dinaledi I (2023), we can see traces of pigmentation with blue and white strings of beads weaved into different points of the linen, the way countless of actual stars are always hanging across the night sky. Visually scattered to create distinct constellations and appease the human eye, yet perfectly aligned for the sake of natural order in the universe. For Dinaledi II and Dinaledi III (2023), individual beads were sown into cotton fabrics into grids. “I was figuring out a new visual language through Dinaledi, which means stars. These are often referred to in divination. When there are talks within different cultures about connections with other realms, you think of the heavens and the stars. I also needed to acknowledge people with spiritual gifts who wear beads for various significant reasons. Even further, for me, the symbolism of the beads is to acknowledge women’s labour because, in Southern African, the people who have historically engaged in beadwork and crafts have been mostly women. I am referencing those contexts and practices in abstract ways, in the space of fine art,” Mbete expressed. It is clear that we cannot simply view these textiles without attaching the makers and wearers, the ritualistic dances of the world in which such materials hold an uttermost importance, or the thought of life and livelihood.

And as much as our relationships with cultural material is expansive, they begin at home. Mbete tells us, “textiles reflect domesticity and the home environment; they are on your furniture, on the bedding, and in clothing. My specific inclination towards textiles is looking at my family and how practices or gestures of love are done, seeing what it takes living out of sheer love. It’s knitting something for someone or gifting them an object that can become part of their life, forever cherished. And there are also big moments and ceremonial practices like when someone gets married, when someone goes through initiation processes, or when people have children, and through seasons changing, through sentiments and sentimentalities changing.” 

Textiles are entered into different avenues of our realities and traditions, giving shape and meaning to them. From the knitted jersey Mbete was wearing at the last day of the Turbine Art Fair when we had our conversation that she continues to hold dear because it was gifted to her many years ago, to the beads that girls wear around their necks, wrists, and waists in their song and dance that transitions them into womanhood, to the blankets that cover the bodies of young women going to bogadi (i.e., marital home) to fulfil their duties as dingwetši (i.e., wives or daughters-in-law). The artworks in this exhibition are screens in which these intermingled Black African narratives can be seen, heard, and reflected upon. 

I’ve known rivers exhibited from July, 22, 2023, until August 18, 2023, at the Bag Factory, 10 Mahlathini Street, Newtown, Johannesburg. Mbete was also part of a group exhibition at The Melrose Gallery between July 29, 2023, and August 27, 2023, titled Quiet As It’s Kept

Her work is currently being shown in the SENSES Group Exhibition at the Goethe Institut Johannesburg until January 29, 2024. Follow her on Instagram for the latest updates on her art practice.

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