The use of textiles in art, especially South African art, is fraught with inherent social, political and aesthetic tensions. The longest-standing of them is the dividing line between fine art and craft — a hierarchical relationship that has privileged the more formal types of fine art mediums and training such as sculpture, painting and drawing. The traditional skills of weaving, sewing, knitting and tapestry have been consequently devalued as “craft” — useful, but not necessarily beautiful.
That perception has changed in interesting ways recently, especially across the African continent, with its deeply embedded traditions and the significance of these craft forms for many societies. Contemporary African artists have begun to incorporate these craft materials and techniques in art forms, thereby reinventing the historic and the traditional in surprising and innovative ways.
Most of these artistic processes using traditional materials and techniques require a direct and sustained engagement with the materials, and the forms of making that they take becomes an intrinsic part of the art and its meaning. The use of materials that are common in societies in the making of everyday objects such as blankets, rugs and clothing means that the materials themselves become a focus of attention. Artists have begun to widen the palette of what they use to build into these craft-based artworks, making bold statements and politicising the process by using waste products such as wire and rope, or objects that are completely decontextualised by their use in a work of art — such as tea bags or pharmaceutical gel capsules.
One of Africa’s most celebrated and globally famous artists, El Anatsui, born in Ghana but who has lived mostly in Nigeria, is a pioneer in the field. For five decades his work has consisted of a signature style, transforming simple, everyday and often discarded materials into complex assemblages that have a distinctive visual and conceptual character. It is a mode of working that has had significant international, but especially African, influence. It has been widely remarked on that his work interrogates the history of colonialism and, since he uses mostly waste materials such as bottle caps, draws connections between consumption, waste, and the environment. All his work is essentially sculptural, despite resembling 2D wall hangings and tapestries.
Other contemporary artists across Africa have followed El Anatsui’s lead. Malian Abdoulaye Konate has earned international acclaim for his textile sculptures that employ bazin, a traditional Malian fabric which he dyes with pigments and cuts into strips. Playing with volume, depth and colour, he layers and superimposes these strips into large abstract or figurative compositions. US-born Tschabalala Self is a critically acclaimed and successful younger contemporary artist who uses textiles in patchwork and quilting collages to comment on issues of identity and the sociopolitical repression of the black body.
But the trend in textile-based art finds a real home right here in SA. Perhaps the doyenne of textile-based artists here is Mags Stephens, founder of the internationally famous Marguerite Stephens Tapestry Studio. Stephens has produced large tapestries, both as versions of other works such as paintings, prints and original designs, for dozens of local and international artists, such as William Kentridge and Judith Mason. The studio, with its team of craft weavers, continues to receive commissions from all over the world.
While contemporary artists have long been enamoured of the forms these materials can take, a younger generation have enthusiastically embraced its possibilities on the South African scene. Queer art icon Athi-Patra Ruga has produced many big tapestries as part of his collections of performance and installation work. Another prominent Cape Town artist, Igshaan Adams, exhibits widely in the UK and the US with his carefully woven abstract works. He often incorporates unusual materials such as plastic, wire and rope, and references his Muslim heritage with is work at times resembling ornate prayer mats.
A recent group show at SMAC gallery in Johannesburg, titled “Within the Fold”, demonstrates that the trend to deploy and manipulate textiles and unusual materials in craft-based artworks is deepening.
Emerging artists such as Michaela Younge, prize-winner at the recent 2022 Cape Town Art Fair, weaves fabric “paintings” into ironic soap opera scenes. Amy Rusch weaves similarly textured, framed pieces into pleasing abstractions.
Leila Abrahams shows a striking “wall hanging” made from stitched-together pharmaceutical gel capsules, while Yonela Makoba presents wall hangings comprising dozens of used tea bags sewn together. These latter two works indicate the central importance of materials to this art form — the domesticity and banality of the materials in both works taking on different, perhaps sinister but undeniably transformative shape when they are transformed into artworks.
This younger group of artists demonstrate South African contemporary art at the forefront of this fascinating new international form.