Tag Archives: South Africa

Where to put baskets in an art gallery?

Announcing an upcoming panel session:

The place of collective craft in the modern museums and art galleries of the Global South

This panel session is part of the conference:

Museums and art galleries in the Global South are challenged by the existence of active traditional craft collectives.

Conventional Western approaches to art history focus on individual creativity. The individual artist is seen as the ultimate site for development of new art forms. While inspiration might be drawn from collective traditions, such as Picasso’s experience of African masks, the ultimate end of analysis is the product realised by an individual. This can be seen as part of a cultural economy that deals in a currency of genius, intellectual property and originality. The colonial process entails the extension of this economy into alternative systems where culture is more a matter of collective meaning and ancestral authority.

Such methodologies have a home in the trans-Atlantic North, where traditional cultures are rarely found outside of the modernist lens. In the Global South, however, there is sometimes a bifocal arrangement where modernity co-exists with collective systems.

Compared to visual arts, craft practice depends more on the reproduction of traditional skills than individual originality. In the North, much contemporary craft has been assimilated into modernity through the introduction of studio practice. In the South, craft is still practiced in communities where it is grounded in collective identities, such as village, tribe, caste or guild.

If art history in the Global South is to reflect the nature of its democracies, then methodologies need to be adopted that account for art that has been forged through collective agencies, where it would be inappropriate to single out an individual as the sole representative. This could be seen to apply to forms such as telephone wire-weaving in South Africa, ‘tjanpi’ sculptures in the Western Desert of Australia, tapa cloths from the Pacific, Pattamadai mat weavers in India, Relmu Witral weavers in Chile. How can these collective art forms be incorporated into a history of art in the Global South?

Some of the issues this raises include:

  • How can innovation be accounted for within a collective practice?
  • To what extent can Western institutions such as art galleries accommodate collective art forms such as village crafts?
  • Are there productive ways in which individual artists can collaborate with traditional communities?
  • How can what might be considered a traditional art form be given a diachronic reading through art history?
  • How might individuals that emerge from collective settings to be granted status as ‘living treasures’, ‘masters of their craft’, or ‘artists in their own right’?
  • How to traditional Indigenous crafts compared to hobby circles in the Global North?

This discussion is relevant to those working across the broader South, including African tribal arts, Asian programs for upliftment of traditional crafts, Oceanic models for dealing with traditional knowledge and Latin American forms of engagement with the so called ‘pre-Colombian’ cultures. This also extends to the representation of these in institutions situated in the Global North.

Issues at play here connect closely with existing forums such as Journal of Modern Craft, Craft & Design Enquiry and Southern Perspectives.

For further information about this panel, contact Kevin Murray (kevin(at)craftunbound.net)

Proposals for conference papers should be sent to the Chairperson of SAVAH, Dr Federico Freschi (federico.freschi(at)its.ac.za).

Hlengiwe Dube – tin top buttons with Zulu style



Hlengiwe Dube is a craftswoman and manager of the African Art Centre. In 2000, she was awarded the Woman of the Year award by the Department of Arts and Culture. As well as her own work, she has played a critical role in developing crafters in the area, particularly in beaded products. Dube has travelled widely to promote Zulu crafts, including participation in the South Project and the Common Goods exhibition by Craft Victoria. She has recently written Zulu Beadwork: Talk with Beads (Africa Direct).

Remarkably, Hlengiwe manages to sustain both her own work as a skilled crafter with a vocation for promoting Zulu crafts as a whole. She has a firm belief in self-reliance through craftwork and the richness of Zulu tradition. These combine in her recent products for beaded cell phone pouches and handbags ornamented with tin top buttons.

Craft is the third largest employer in the South African economy. For most poor people, is the only means by which they can advance themselves. With Hlengiwe’s recent work we see the great potential for product development in South African craft.

This is her statement about the work that she has made for The World of Small Things.


I am very aware of the “Keep environment Clean “campaign and as a South African citizen, I am very perturbed at the amount of litter that is strewn about on the streets, the verges and the beaches. I had noticed that a lot of this litter comprised of cool drink cans.



The government seems to have “won the war” on the plastic bag saga, but tin cans still contributes to a huge percentage of litter strewn about. I feel this matter needs serious attention.

I then came up with the idea of making bags using tin top buttons and earrings using bottle tops. I source my supply from the local dump, roadside bins and even have neighbours and street children collect them for me. I wash and sterilize them, and then they are ready to be weaved together and transformed into bags.

I weave the buttons using cotton and beads. I give the entire tin to the other artist who makes caps and belts.



I enjoy weaving with recycle material and I also do lot of weaving with recycled telephone wire strings. I believe that weaving is the way of communicating with other people, in our culture women used to visit each other and bring their mats to weave and share ideas of how to take care of their families. For me weaving is to share my feeling through it, communicate with people through my weaving. I like to incorporate it with beads, because when I first fell in love with beads I was only 12 years old, since then I have been working with beads non stop and creating new ideas.

I always enjoy sharing my experience with other people to create jobs so that they can earn a living, because I believe that as long as you have two functional hands you will never starve.

Bring a little global warming to Soweto

Belle Primary School had been selected as the site for the South Kids activity of the gathering in Soweto. It is situated just next to the Hector Petersen Museum and its staff seemed very keen to be part of the event. The passion of their involvement took most of us by surprise.



Emma Davies, Maree Clark, Sara Thorn and I were driven by Adelaide, one of the educators, to Belle Primary School for our grand welcome reception. We stood by the gates while two rows of children lined and started singing a song usual for greeting a wedding party:

Mme ma Sambo,
Our Principal
Ba vulele, ba ngene
Be so kind to open the gates, and allow our visitors in.
Bongena bangena
Thank you, if you allow, with your blessings then in they’ll come.

They sang this over and over with increasing intensity. Down through the centre came a group of young boys in gumboots, who performed an energetic dance for us. They then jogged back and soon came a party of little children in traditional dress waving South African flags. They opened the gates and took each of us by the hand into the school, as the corridor of learners continued their song. Eventually we made it to a verandah where we were formally greeted by the Principal. She explained to the students that they were honoured by these visitors from the other southern countries, including Australia. The learners replied in perfect chorus, ‘Good morning Principal, Educators and Visitors’. Each of the educators had come dressed in a traditional costume, including some beautiful Shweshwe prints and a gloriously beaded Zulu outfit.


Sara Thorn handing over the emu to the Principal Mrs Sambo

Sara Thorn handing over the emu to the Principal Mrs Sambo

Sara Thorn handing over the emu to the Principal Mrs Sambo

We were then led to the classroom where Sara Thorn explained to the children the idea of the art class. They then crowded around my laptop to watch a short film from ArtPlay, where Vicki Shokoroglou told then how the Melbourne children had prepared works for them to use. The children then returned to their desks and started drawing – whatever they felt like. Once they had each made their drawing, they then stood up and explained to the class their drawing and what they would then made with the materials. We then had representations from other classes that they wanted to participate, so we squeezed some more in. The children then raided the amazing stock of materials that had been gathered by the artists yesterday with Prince Massingham and Clifford Charles.


Educators and visitors to the Belle Primary School

Educators and visitors to the Belle Primary School