“Threading Through the Collections”: Africa’s textile heritage


By Mamelodi Marakalala

The textiles from Africa. The textiles in Africa. The textiles that are Africa. 

Threading Through the Collections is the latest exhibition at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) and was curated by Kutlwano Mokgojwa, the curator of African Art Collections. Threading is the act of bringing together yarns, fibres, and various threads to create patterned fabrics and tapestries. It is a long and complicated process involving weft threads, which are placed crosswise, and warp threads, which are placed lengthwise. These are passed through each other by hand or by a loom. It gives the maker the creative flexibility to create any form of texture or design they can imagine. It takes layers upon layers over months to years, involving multiple techniques.

Threading Through the Collections opened on the 8th of February 2024 and will be on view until the 11th of May 2024. The exhibition title can be taken as a metaphor for the curatorial journey, which was all about commemorating textiles and the processes that make them possible. “It was a mammoth task. My first exhibition spanning three of the museum’s galleries, which total 768 square meters,” said Kutlwano Mokgojwa at the opening. She recalled going through almost 250 textiles from WAM’s impressive and immense art collection from all over Africa, to fill the space. 

The curatorial experience of making this exhibition mimics threading at its core – the artistic journey of going through the raw materials, gathering them, perusing their variant qualities, connecting and interlacing them into each other, and finally bringing a fabric into space, which then takes on a form that can be used to cover an empty wall, an open window, a bare table, or a naked body. 

In addition to having multiple functions in people’s lives, textiles inhabit every crevice of African history. This medium has established the cultural identities of the diverse African nations. For example, we know the Kente fabric to be from Ghana, Kanga from Tanzania, Kitenge from Zambia, Adire from Nigeria, Seshweshwe from Southern Africa, Bokolonfini from Mali, Shema from Ethiopia, and so many more. Even so, these countries mentioned also have regions, tribes and clans with traditional textiles. There are also many names or iterations of some fabrics. It is a heritage standing on a vast scale. 

Textiles have secured Africa’s proud legacy around the globe. We, Africans, are known for our bold attire creatively crafted from diverse fabrics; and for the grand social and cultural statements that our traditional attires make – whether we are talking about our ailments, presidents, birds, spiritual customs, or calling out to and celebrating our ancestors. We are admired for expressing ourselves, telling our authentic stories, recording our history, and continuing to preserve our heritage. We are also identified, respected and addressed accordingly based on the social status or ranks that specific attires or items communicate to others.

The exhibition features commemorative textiles such as the President Nelson Mandela Cloth (c. 1994) wherein a portrait of the former president is placed on the South African flag as a background and the Cuidado Minas Capulana (c1995) from Mozambique, which is patterned with 2D images of women working in the fields, some domestic objects lined up together and Portuguese words “Cuidado Minas” translating to “Be Careful Mines” at the bottom  These cloths are typically used for honouring leaders or icons and for remembering historical life or events. 

There are textiles imbued with messaging and meaning such as Vulani Maswanganyi’s 1994 Election Nceka (1994), which is meant to wrap the shoulders or body and has the word “ANC”, the voting mark “X”,  and the date “27-04-94”, along with figures in the line to vote, or in the middle of casting their vote. It remains a creative record of the first democratic year in South Africa. Florence Nobela’s Aids Cloth is patterned with a red ribbon, the words “MY FRIEND WITH AIDS IS STILL MY FRIEND”, the AIDS helpline number, as well as woven human figurations representing different South African people. It was designed to bring awareness, and for audiences to be prompted into carefully engaging with this sensitive topic that plagued communities. 

Some textiles reflect a particular culture; divulging the social status of the individuals who can wear them. In many African cultures, if not all, there are designated attires for certain groups of people. The most frequent instances of distinct dress are when it comes to men, brides, married women, and elders. The Arkilla Munga (c. 1950) is a wedding blanket or saddle cloth worn in the Tuareg culture, whose people occupy the Sahel region encompassing Libya, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and a few neighbouring countries. It is an example of a cloth traditionally reserved for special people on special occasions. 

Because textiles have a long history of not being classified as art because of their multifacetedness, the reasons why they are made and the relentless ways in which they are created, many weavers were not viewed as or referred to as artists for a long time. In Rorke’s Drift, KwaZulu–Natal, the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre was established in the 1960s and was one of the biggest art institutions of its time. The centre is still known today for having housed artists such as Rose Xaba, Elizabeth Mdluli, Jessie Dlamini, Regina Buthelezi, Philda Majozi, and many more who gave the art world iconic and larger-than-life tapestries. Yet, the way it was structured was very laborious –  from recruitment to everyday operations. 

Because of those circumstances in the industry, along with the necessity of textiles in people’s homes, textile artistry was considered either labouring or adhering to tradition. As a result, many of the artists were unrecorded and remain unknown, including the African artists whose works are held and now shown in this exhibition. 

This brilliant and insightful showcase is meant to teach us the ways of making and being in Africa and to remind us of the prowess, resilience, and pride in that. “In displaying these textiles, I hoped to evoke the great skill, advancement and constantly shifting practices of the many nations and artists represented in this show. To appreciate and pay homage to the incredible textile heritage that has enriched the whole world and influenced global art, fashion and design today,” Mokgojwa says.  

The collections of the Wits Art Museum

WAM has made it its mission to produce exhibitions of this nature, that celebrate African artistry of the past and present. Known to be a popular cultural attraction in Braamfontein for tourists, city goers, as well as permanent and student Joburgers, the museum holds a large and stellar art collection from different corners of the African continent. This includes classical African objects such as beadwork, drums, headrests, masks, wooden sculptures, ceremonial and fighting sticks, baskets, wireworks, and works by legendary artists such as Gerard Sekoto, Azaria Mbatha, Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser, Gladys Mgudlandlu, and more. 

WAM also holds contemporary South African art created by the likes of William Kentridge, Penny Siopis, David Koloane, Zander Blom, and many others. They have a partnership with Standard Bank that includes over 5,000 objects that are culturally and historically significant to Africa as part of the Standard Bank African Art Collection established in 1978. WAM holds and administers anthropological artefacts forming part of the Wits Museum of Ethnology Collection. These mentions are just the tip of the iceberg when speaking about the depth of the institution’s collections.

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