Bulumko Mbete was born in 1995 on a Saturday. So reads the first line of the artist’s biography. This dry fact that reveals little about the artist is fitting given Mbete’s interest in ordinary stories, or more specifically, how stories are shaped and carried across generations through domestic materials. While her own family archives of photographs and oral histories are the starting point for much of her work, the artist traces connections between small, everyday narratives and larger movements in South African history.
One aspect of Mbete’s artistic practice involves the transformation of Aranda blankets (also known as iTshali), into sculptural forms and wall hangings that incorporate beading, weaving and stitching. The process begins with wetting the blanket to open the fibres so that they are able to receive the wood glue or floor sealant, allowing the blanket to be shaped. The shaping is an intuitive exercise and the resulting forms are abstract — a glorification of a household object that retains the contours of its use. The blankets take up to a month to dry before Mbete intervenes once again, with stitched or collaged elements and beading.
“My relationship to these blankets is connected to a memory of my grandfather. When he passed on, my sister and I were given these blankets. They embody my memory of him, who he was, what he symbolises in the family. As a black, university graduate in the 1930s, he achieved upward mobility at a time in our history when it was so difficult to attain.” She explains this from her studio at the Bag Factory, where she will be presenting new and in process work as part of Open Studios Joburg. The latter is a programme of events that enable the public to engage with artists and their work directly in their studios across the inner city.
The blankets Mbete works with are most commonly used for warmth and comfort in domestic spaces, but also hold significance in marriage ceremonies and initiation practices. Through her research she has come across contradictory accounts of the origins of the blankets and other materials she works with such as Bull denim (used in Xhosa traditional attire). The information about these materials can be difficult to verify and their colonial roots complicate the narrative of their historical use and cultural symbolism.
“I’m not trying to paint an idealised picture of these materials, many of which have a violent history. Their origins and the history of their use are embedded within them, which is what I’m interested in — how these narratives come together in a material form, a domestic object. Because my family history is so diverse we draw relationships to the materials in multiple different ways and there are tensions at different points. I got to working with the blanket through my black grandfather but on my mother’s side there’s Scottish heritage which would relate to the people who brought the blankets here,” she says.
Mbete is drawn to working with textiles for tactile reasons too. She mostly works with her hands, weaving, knitting, sewing, beading and engaging in natural dyeing processes. She brings these practices into her work as a gesture towards the women in her family, for whom care is expressed through the gifting of blankets or handmade clothing. For Mbete, beading represents a channel for divination. “In my own practice, I really don’t enjoy drawing and painting. I just find there’s too much of a separation between the thing that you use and the thing that you're making a mark on.”
As the most recent recipient of the Cassirer Welz award, which encompasses a three-month residency at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg (an area known for its textile and garment manufacturing industries), Mbete plans to extend her knowledge and research into natural dyeing processes. Current experiments include dyes made from avocado, onion, madder root and imphepho flowers, inspired by a recent workshop with artist Tinyiko Makwakwa.
Mbete is quick to acknowledge the numerous influences on her practice. She has a sustained interest in the work of other artists, fostered through her experience as an assistant to Kemang Wa Lehulere and Dineo Sheshee Bopape among other celebrated South African artists. Her brief stint as an assistant at Goodman Gallery and two years spent working at the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation , have equipped her with a sound understanding of the complex functions of private art institutions and commercial spaces. She is also well-versed in the hustle involved in sustaining creative work, where practitioners necessarily commit to multiple projects at one time, or hold full-time positions while practising on the side in order to stay afloat financially. This too is an ‘ordinary story’, common to artists across the various studio complexes featured on the Open Studios Joburg programme, where even ‘prize-winning artists’ juggle jobs, projects and side-hustles in addition to the expectations that accompany sought-after opportunities to make and show artwork.
The Cassirer Welz Award offers Mbete a studio in the Bag Factory for three months, a modest production budget and a monthly stipend sufficient to assist with but not cover living costs for the residency period. The artist is expected to produce an exhibition at the end of the three months, the character and scale of which she is free to determine. Perhaps one of the most significant benefits to the residency is the interactions with other practitioners based at the Bag Factory.
“When I introduced my practice to the artists and staff at the Bag there was a deep interest in whether I’d expand my research to look into family archives outside of my own. What would that look like? I’m interested in archives and approaching them in an artistic or creative way. So many archives have gatekeepers. How do we record more stories for people who don’t get a platform?” she asks.
Mbete’s family history found resonance with that of several resident artists. “There is often a lot more diversity in our bloodlines than we realise. We have been conditioned either culturally or through legacies of racial segregation to reduce our identity to this one idea of who we are or how we present to the world. This is the farce of culture or identifying with one culture specifically.”
Along with her residency, Mbete has curated ‘Memory Proceeding’ at Transwerke, Constitution Hill, a playful project that positions completed and in process work by seven South African artists in conversation. This follows another curatorial project ‘Event Horizon’ that she produced collaboratively with artist Kamil Hassim earlier this year. In each case, Mbete has independently sought out funding to support and collaborate with artists while developing her curatorial practice through experimentation. While these projects subsidise her own artistic work, it is clear that Mbete recognises the value of mutual support between practitioners in an art space that often makes unreasonable demands on the people at its centre.
In August this year, Mbete will be leaving for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to pursue an MFA at Carnegie Mellon University. Funding is made available to all students enrolled in the interdisciplinary, experimental and research-based programme, which means Mbete and her cohort will have three years to examine, reconfigure and deepen their practices without the significant financial pressures that generally accompany postgraduate study.
Bulumko Mbete will be opening her studio along with numerous other artists at the Bag Factory, 10 Mahlathini Street, Newtown, as part of Open Studios Joburg. Her curatorial project, ‘Memory Proceeding’ runs from April 28 to May 28 at Studio 52, Creative Uprising Hub, Transwerke, Constitutional Hill, Johannesburg. ‘Memory Proceeding’ is supported by Creative Knowledge Resources and is also part of the Open Studios Joburg programme.
The programme grants access to the nuanced world of artists living and working in Johannesburg, a world that can be hard to picture from the polished chambers of galleries, art fairs and other institutions, where their work is more often seen.
This text was produced during an independent journalism development project by African Arts Content focused on the Openstudios.Joburg programme.
Open Studios Joburg runs from Saturday May 27 to Sunday May 28. Tickets cost R55 online or R80 at the door. This includes a shuttle service. www.openstudios.joburg