In the wake of the very successful contemporary South African ceramic sale in 2021, Strauss & Co is pleased to offer another unique asset class for collectors of the arts: a range of textiles, created by various individual contemporary artists as well as communities of textile workers and artists.
It is virtually impossible to think about contemporary South African art without mentioning such artists as Igshaan Adams, Nicholas Hlobo, Turiya Magadlela and Billie Zangewa, artists all working with fibre and textile, and whose works are included in the recent Phaidon publication, Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art (2019).
Equally important are well-known classical texts in which women take control of the narrative by weaving: Penelope weaves and then unravels the shroud of her father-in-law to delay choosing between her three suitors, knowing, believing, that her husband Ulysses is still alive; Phelomena weaves the story of her rape; and Helen weaves scenes from the war between the Greeks and the Trojans.
The lots of items included in this timed online auction sale:
18 May to 1 June 2022 are from very prominent sources:
- The FirstRand Art Collection, which is deaccessioning phenomenal Mapula cloths and works by prominent South African fibre artist to focus more exclusively on collecting other forms of African contemporary art.
- The Natalie Knight Collection of singular Tsonga/Shangaan and Ndebele textiles and beadwork.
- The Keiskamma Art Project’s standout The Marriage of Nolulama and Luthando altarpiece and small-scale tapestries from the collective.
- The Harry Lits Collection of Amadlozi and African Art’s Kuba raffia cloths, made by the Bakuba people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Also of interest are tapestries from the acclaimed ELC Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift, first established by art-school graduates Peder and Ulla Gowenius as a poverty-alleviation initiative in the early 1960s at a small Swedish mission station in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as iconic small-scale carpets designed by Norman Catherine and woven in East London.
The Natalie Knight Collection includes fine examples of Tsonga and Shangaan cloth artworks and beadwork, some of which shown on the exhibition, Dungamanzi, Stirring Waters, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2007. The items from this collection range from n’wana (child figures) to sangoma skirts, all items imbued with cultural and spiritual significance. Two iconic historical Ndebele beaded and leather aprons will also form part of the auction.
The Keiskamma Art Project, set up in the Eastern Cape 2000 as an upliftment initiative for impoverished Xhosa women in the area, is best known for its large-scale altarpiece that was inspired by the famous Bayeux tapestry, and which is now in the Parliament Collection in Cape Town. It records the history of South Africa, with a focus on the Eastern Cape, over its 120 metres of length.
Large-scale alterpieces are iconic in the project’s repertoire, and Strauss & Co is proud to handle the latest, The Marriage of Nolulama and Luthando, which tells a compelling story. This altarpiece is made up of a central panel with eight side panels, framed as one work. Nolulama and Luthando were two of the earliest AIDS patients in the local community to receive antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. They met in the AIDS patients treatment centre and subsequently married. The work was made to celebrate young people going back to a normal life after regaining their health. Made by members of the Keiskamma Art Project in classes with visual artist Marialda Marais, the central panel depicts Nolulama and Luthando in appliqué and embroidery on cloth, while the acrylic paintings in the side panels were inspired by the stories told by elderly people in the community who had lost their children.
Another lot in the sale, Canterbury, is from a new cycle of Keiskamma altar pieces based on Marguerite Poland’s novel A Sin of Omission (Penguin, 2019). The artwork depicts the mission school at Canterbury Cathedral where the main character in the novel, Stephen Mzamane, trained in the early 1870s.
The Mapula Embroidery Project north-west of Pretoria was started as an upliftment initiative in 1991, with Emily Maluleke managing the collective and training and supporting a group of women from various backgrounds and language groups. The distinctive cloths depict lively, colourful embroidered scenes from traditional and contemporary life and culture, as well as special occasions in South African public life.
Kuba cloth, from the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, is sometimes referred to as ‘cut-pile velvet’. It consists of a base of plain-weave raffia cloth, produced by the men of the Bakuba community, with distinctive geometric patterns cut and embroidered by the women, superimposed.
The lots on auction testify to textiles as a major means of artistic expression for contemporary artists, who are exploring the possibilities of weaving, plaiting, knotting, sewing, embroidery, and knitting. These artists use wool, cotton, linen, leather, rope, silk, hair, and beads to challenge inherited notions of domesticity and femininity, and to tell stories about histories of socio-economic and political life in this country.
These works aim to unravel the conventional separation of fine art and craft, to unpick perfunctory categories and artificial divisions, and to weave together new patterns of thinking about art.
All these lots testify to the creative possibilities of fibre in constituting the fabric of society.