The story of felt blankets and identity in South Africa
The Ndebele marriage blanket
Another example is this marriage blanket from the Ndebele tribe c1950 (footnote 3). Predominantly white beads cover significant parts of this blanket such as to significantly change its pattern.
It’s not possible to credit individual makers save their tribal origins, as such information was not recorded, thus unknown at the time they were collected.
The Basotho Blanket
The fabric is a Basotho blanket, which also arrived with the missionaries to what is now Lesotho.
The key defining feature of a Basotho blanket is a 1-cm wide stripe. The story goes that a blanket arrived in Southern Africa with its manufacturer’s 'cut-here pinstripe' still on it. Even though that stripe was a flaw, the populace liked and kept it.
Thabo Makheta's inspiration
When asked how she was inspired to use them as materials for jackets (and skirts), Makheta says: I came across the idea of using them when I attended the Durban July in 2011. The theme that year was "Royalty" and I wanted to design a garment that would be modern but instead of the European interpretation of Royalty I went African and more specifically my Basotho culture...
The “Keiskamma Guernica” is made from used fabrics, including used blankets from the now-closed clinic. The blankets, (machine) felted, gray with white stripes, are so ubiquitous in South Africa to be almost overlooked. But in this artwork, their use invokes the individuals who have been lost.
By 2010, despite the public health policy, the lives of the people in Hamburg were improving. Alongside the grief and anger, there are also symbols of optimism such as the birds on the top of the artwork.
In the way that felt is made by enmeshing different materials, here the work is made by enmeshing the individual cries and hopes of the KAP members as expressed in fabric and thread.
the blankets and the community
Watch a clip on how the blankets came to be used in making the work.
The Tawulo Pattern
The patterns, too, reference African history and the contemporary. For instance, this Tawulo pattern draws from the aforementioned Basotho blanket (notice the stripe) and the practice of historic West African weavers.
When textiles from elsewhere in the world first arrived into West Africa, the local weavers would unravel them to extract the exotically-coloured foreign yarns. These would be re-woven with local yarns of local colours to create a cultural hybrid of pattern and texture called kente clothe.
Mungo references kente clothes through the random rolling of the weft yarn in the weaving process. This also makes each blanket, even of the same design, a unique item.
Credits, Footnotes and Links:
felting images in title and first panel
* photo credit: Stephanie Bentum
uMbalo blanket and Ndebele blanket
* photo credit: Yasmin Hankel
* the blankets are in the collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery, shown with their permission
* footnote (1) African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations and Ideas you can Wear, Victoria Rovine
* footnotes (2) and (3) Carol Kaufmann, retired Iziko South African National Gallery African art curator
* visit Iziko South African National Gallery
Thabo Makheta designs
* first image photo credit: Thabo Makheta
* close up images photo credit: Yasmin Hankel
* last image photo credit: Rose Estiaan Labuschagne
* visit Thabo Makheta
Keiskamma Art Projects
* all photo credits: Robert Hofmeyr
* footnote (4) Brenda Schmahmann, 2016, “The Keiskamma Art Project: restoring hope and livelihoods”
* film credit: Dr. Nicola Ashmore; see the full films on the making of Keiskamma Guernica
* visit Keiskamma Art Projects' website
* all photo credits: Mungo
* clip of loom Social Fabric, courtesy Mungo
* visit Mungo