The invented collective African artist

In a recent issue of Art South Africa, Achille Mbembe articulates on the factors constraining contemporary African culture. Among those factors, he identifies ‘The conflation of African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism’:

The dominant but false idea – shared by many Africans and many donors – is that the act of creativity is necessarily a collective act; that African artistic forms are not aesthetic objects per se but ciphers of a deeper level of the ‘real’ that is fundamentally ethnographic and expressive of Africa’s ontological cultural difference of ‘authenticity’. It is this African ‘difference’ and this African ‘authenticity’ donors are keen to find, support and, if necessary, invent.

Achille Mbembe ‘Art and Development’ Art South Africa 8/3 2010 pp.70-74

Hlengiwe Dube – African craft aspiring to gallery status

Hlengiwe Dube outside the Geelong Art Gallery fixing a wire basket

Hlengiwe Dube outside the Geelong Art Gallery fixing a wire basket

Hlengiwe Dube is a prominent Zulu crafter.* While she has mastered traditional bead and wire work, she has also developed new designs. She was a key participant in the South Project, where she collaborated with a sculptor to produce a hybrid telephone wire and cable tag work of art. Dube also works as a manager at the African Art Centre, where she plays an important developmental role with crafters in KwaZulu Natal. Last year, Dube published a book titled Zulu Beadwork which articulated the language of beads.

In the past, she has completed a number of commission for beaded public art in South Africa. This year she is producing a South African flag, embroidered entirely of beads, which will fly at the Madiba Stadium for the FIFA World Cup.

The African Art Centre where Hlengiwe works has a small gallery which hosts exhibitions of crafters. It is one of the relatively few places in South Africa were craft can be seen in a gallery setting. It seems a natural progression for a crafter like Hlengiwe to have a solo exhibition including unique works from her artistic imagination. But to claim status as an individual art is more difficult than in Western contemporary craft. Traditional culture seems to have a much stronger pull. In the following brief interview, she starts the ball rolling on the question of African craft in galleries.

What prompted you to write a book on Zulu beadwork?

Zulu Beadwork cover by Hlengiwe Dube

Zulu Beadwork cover by Hlengiwe Dube

My grandmother and mother were collectors of antique Zulu craftwork and beadwork and I used to go with them to the museums to help on translating the information about the antique beadwork that they were selling to them. I discovered that most of the items in the museums didn’t have enough information. Even when schools visited the museum, there was not enough information to gain.

When I was reading the books about the Zulu beadwork, they were all saying different things and I was so confused. I decided to go direct and communicate with the people whom wear the beadwork, as well as those who make beadwork. I sought to find out from them all the meaning of beadwork and colours that they used. It was very interesting because much of what I heard was different to what the available books were saying. I decided to collect all the information that I could and share it with the other Zulu beadwork lovers, as it was direct from the Zulu people.

Do you think Zulu craft like beadwork is the expression of an individual artist or a collective culture?

I think it is both. In some instances, craft items are intended for the sole use of a crafter or the person who wears or uses the craft object. You also find crafts which are representative of stylistic expressions of a particular culture with particular colours and designs of metaphoric significance to the concerned culture.

Would you like to see more of this craft in art galleries? If so, what do you think has prevented opportunities for their display?

I would definitely like to see more craft in art galleries. I think craft has always been relegated to a level lower that Fine Art, and not as a creative form of expression. I think display in craft in art galleries will narrow the divide between art and craft.

How do you see South African craft developing in the future?

I think South African craft is developing, embracing modern trends, usages and also attracts interest from other cultures.

*’Crafter’ is the preferred term for craftsperson in South Africa.

Spirit in a spear blade – Mande Blacksmiths

Patrick McNaugthon’s study of Mali metalsmithing identified a problem in the applying Western distinction between art and life:

The Mande people of Mali, like some other African peoples, give a name to every kind of sculpture that they produce, and also to categories of objects such as wooden twin figures, dolls, animal masks and headdresses (McNaughton 1988:110f.). These names may be revealing as to an object’s perceived spiritual potency. Some types of objects might not be considered as art by Westerners, as in the case of spear blades and oil-burning lamps. Yet the Mande consider their beauty, symbolism, and place in society to take them beyond simple utility. The distinction between art and artifact (or crafts) is not generally marked in African languages.

Patrick R. McNaughton The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power and Art in West Africa Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988