SA beadwork tapestries on show in Washington

15 January 2014

The intricately beaded tapestries of a South African artists’ collective have gone on display at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington in the United States.

The Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence exhibition, which opened on 9 December and runs until 21 September, features works created by South African women from the Ubuhle artists’ collective in KwaZulu-Natal.

The 31 imposing pieces on display introduce the viewer to the traditional “ndwango” bead art form, in which coloured glass beads are sewn onto black cloth, and include the seven-panel piece The African Crucifixion, which was commissioned for the Anglican cathedral in Pietermaritzburg.

The artists featured include master beader Ntombephi Ntobela, Nonhlakanipho Mndiyatha, Zondlile Zondo, Zandile Ntobela and Thando Ntobela. Deceased artists to whom tribute is paid in the exhibition are Nolindelo Sidibi (1981-2007), Thembani Ntobela (1972-2011), Bongiswa Ntobela (1973-2009) and Ngoneni Duma (1975-2008).

“The artists are being launched as individual international artists in their own right,” Beverley Gibson, co-curator of the exhibition and one of the founders of the group, said in a statement following the opening of the exhibition. “Their distinct styles elevate them from crafters to artists.”

Gibson, along with Ntobela, established the Ubuhle artists’ community on a former sugarcane farm north of the coastal city of Durban in 1999 as a way for local women, including those who were not brought up in a traditional beading culture, to gain skills and earn a living.

“Through their powerful works, the Ubuhle women have demonstrated how they rose above poverty, Aids and abuse to create stunning works of arts and to support themselves and their families,” Gibson said.

The exhibition is running in parallel with the American exhibition Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley, which features pieces from the museum’s permanent collection curated by Jasmine A Utsey.

The four quilts on display are those created by two sisters, Annie Dennis (1904­­-1997) and Emma Russell (1909-2004), and their friend Effie Bates Copper, the three of whom were trained in quilt making in a rural African-American community in Mississippi at the turn of the previous century.

The quilts represent classic American quilt patterns and techniques passed down through five generations, and the exhibition includes fieldwork and audio interviews with present-day African-American women quilters giving voice to the continuing tradition of quilting.

SAinfo reporter and Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum