Journeys into Textile and Identity

The journey to find identity, 5 South African contemporary artists.

Pierre Fouche, His Foam White Arms Go Over and Round Me (2012) by Pierre FoucheOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


More so than many other countries, perhaps, identity in South Africa has been prescribed. From the mid-nineteenth century until 1994, oppressive systems – first colonialism and then Apartheid – dictated how people should live their lives, regulating everything from enfranchisement to employment opportunities. Because these regulations were centred on the body, and specifically the control of black bodies by white, dress became one of the many arenas subject to governance. After all, our clothes are what we use to express a point of view, to assert an identity, to signal an allegiance and to exhibit cultural pride.  For the five contemporary South African artists in this virtual exhibition, textiles have enormous power. Working across a range of media, each adopts a unique approach to fabric or to fashion. Some focus on raw materials and on production, while others turn to the theatrical language of costume and the claims that can be made about identity through clothes. What they share is a rich understanding of the historic, social and political currency of garments in South Africa and beyond, and the many ways in which textiles can be put to transformative ends. 

Mary Sibande, Sophie by Mary SibandeOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


As the story goes, Mary Sibande originally intended to study fashion design. She found herself in the art world almost by chance when, after travelling from Mpumulanga to Johannesburg for school, she was too late to register for a fashion diploma and signed up for an art degree. Since then Sibande has produced artworks that contain elements of couture, capitalising on her love of fashion. First making an appearance in the 2006 show ‘My Madam’s Things’, the figure of Sophie, Sibande’s alter-ego, is a recurring motif in the artist’s body of work. Sophie is usually seen wearing an elaborate indigo domestic worker’s uniform and a calm expression, her eyes closed as she is either lost in thought or asleep. Domestic workers, almost always black and female, are some of South Africa’s most vulnerable people. They clean, cook and care for children in the homes of primarily white employers and are often poorly paid and at risk of abuse. Their exploitation typifies the skewed power relations in South Africa that devalue and dehumanise the bodies and labour of black women. 

Mary Sibande, A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern) (2013) by Mary SibandeOriginal Source: Anna Stielau

In Sibande’s vision, though, Sophie is dreaming of change.

A reversed retrogress presents her fibreglass figure in a costume equally reminiscent of a domestic worker’s uniform and a Victorian ball gown, meeting her own glorious, distorted reflection.

Her counterpart is her twin, but for a regal cloud of purple fabric that snakes outward from her body.

The Purple Shall Govern

The title The Purple Shall Govern references the phrase ‘the people shall govern’ from South Africa’s 1955 Freedom Charter, later incorporated into the Constitution, but it also invokes the Purple Rain Protests in Cape Town in 1989. That incident, where police water cannons sprayed purple dye onto protesters to identify them for arrest, marked a significant turning point for the country. It was the last time the Apartheid government would use public force against dissenters. With that context in mind, Sibande’s choice of purple fabric is an incitement to revolution and to reinvention. Sophie opens her arms to embrace a future in which she might become something entirely different.

Igshaan Adams, Ontbind, detail (2016) by Igshaan AdamsOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


Igshaan Adams’ enigmatic work is often hard to pin-down, as its subject matter and its medium are in-betweens. Formally, many of his pieces exist between textile and sculpture, while the work draws meaning from the push-and-pull of conflicting identities – Adams’ own experience as a liberal-minded Muslim raised in his Christian grandparents’ home, as a coloured South African and as queer– to explore the tensions that arise from a hybrid position in the world.

Igshaan Adams, Ontbind (2016) by Igshaan AdamsOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


Ontbind is a tapestry first, but a text, second. Riffing off traditional Islamic wall hangings, Adams uses knotted nylon and string to weave a prayer into the textile. The words are suggested rather that described; even an Arabic speaker would struggle to make sense of them. This abstraction, the artist says, represents his own journey with his faith. As a non-Arabic speaker and as a gay man, he experiences himself as an outsider. Working with his hands, he can literally come to grips with the religion, feeling the meaning of the words take shape through and around him. “You almost create your own form of Islam that suits you,” Adams explains, “There are things you choose to honour and there are certain parts that are too big to take on…”.

Interestingly, he chooses to give his relationship to Islam an incomplete physical form. With the warp exposed and dangling, the delicate weave of the work is unresolved. The title, which translates as ‘regrouping’ or ‘regathering’, implies much the same thing.

Identity is, at least for Igshaan Adams, a work in progress.

Nicholas Hlobo, Uthekwane (2016) by Nicholas HloboOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


Nicholas Hlobo also thinks of identity as fabric, assembled from bits and pieces of found material and tenuously held together by thread. As the artist explains, building a self – and with it a relationship to family, community and society – requires addition, subtraction and stitches: “Trying to find your identity is about cutting things off and bringing them back; sometimes you don’t know what you want to keep.” His experimental use of materials, and particularly the stark juxtaposition of rubber and ribbon, is a metaphor for this process of self-fashioning. Black rubber, coded as masculine, and ribbon, symbolically feminine, sit uneasily side by side, allowing the artist to prompt conversations around the messy, makeshift patchwork of gender, race and sexuality. 

Nicholas Hlobo, Uthekwane (2016) by Nicholas HloboOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


Although Hlobo’s earliest exhibitions revolved around large-scale sculptural installations, he increasingly works in performance. The eerie Uthekwane, extracted from the artist’s solo show Sewing Saw, is performed by a swaying figure dressed in floor-length white robes. The face of the actor is hidden inside a wooden box, but the tilt of his head suggests he is looking into three circular mirrors on an adjacent wall. The audience can’t meet his eyes or break his concentration – he is isolated from them by an intimate connection with his own, half-hidden reflection.

Nicholas Hlobo, Uthekwane (2016) by Nicholas HloboOriginal Source: Anna Stielau

Uthekwane alludes to the indigenous Hamerkop bird with its heavy, angular head, and also possibly to the mythological lightning bird of Nguni folklore. The title of the work is in isiXhosa (the language of the Xhosa people, to which Hlobo belongs), a tactic the artist uses to control access. By creating a language barrier (and isn’t language always a barrier?), he divides insiders who understand the reference from outsiders for whom the piece remains a closed system. It’s a small but powerful gesture, preventing lazy or uncritical engagement.

Athi Patra Ruga, Convention…Procession…Elevation… (2013) by Athi Patra RugaOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


Athi Patra Ruga’s vivid tapestries imagine a futuristic landscape populated with an ultra-stylish cast of recurring characters that, while it has all the hallmarks of fantasy, draws inspiration from South Africa’s recent past and present. Where fashion enforces a definite here-and-now, an endless present, Ruga draws on his professional training as a designer to invent an elusive utopia that runs alongside and ahead of us. 


His tapestries, represented here in Convention…Processions…Elevation, extend the sweeping narratives fleshed out in his performance work. Since 2013 many of these performances have revolved around Ruga’s mythical land of Azania, a matriarchy under the authority of a monarch, Queen Ivy, who looks like the love child of Rihanna and Lady Godiva.

The word ‘Azania’ has a long history in South Africa. Since it was claimed as a struggle name for the country in the 1960s by the Pan-African Congress, an Africanist political movement opposing Apartheid rule, Azania has become a kind of de-colonial shorthand, signalling what could have been and what should have been. It summons a dream of freedom and a future elsewhere.

Athi Patra Ruga, Uzuko (2013) by Athi Patra RugaOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


In this piece Queen Ivy’s inauguration is shown in feverish technicolour. Green-haired and statuesque, she cuts a spectacular figure against the sky, her zebra cloak billowing around her. Behind the queen, figures wearing only clouds of balloons assemble in a surreal royal procession, riding zebras. The scene is impossible, too bright and too strange, but beguiling. The real world pales in comparison.

Pierre Fouche, His Foam White Arms Go Over and Round Me (2012) by Pierre FoucheOriginal Source: Anna Stielau


While it may not orient around fashion, Pierre Fouché’s "His Foam White Arms Go Over and Round Me" is certainly about the personal significance we invest in textiles. This 6.4 meter long lace scroll reproduces the trident-shaped pattern of a frilled shark’s teeth. These fish, once known as sea serpents, lure prey into the depths with the blinding whiteness of their smile. Responding to that deadly smile, Fouché has mapped out a complex band of bobbin lace in cool greys, blues and whites. 

Pierre Fouche, His Foam White Arms Go Over and Round Me (Detail) (2012) by Pierre FoucheOriginal Source: Anna Stielau

His Foam White Arms Go Over and Around Me

On closer examination, the rhythm of the otherwise traditional lacework is a little off-beat. Set into the piece in Morse code is a fragment of poetry from the novelist and explorer Crosbie Garstin’s ‘The Ballad of the Royal Ann’. Garstin tells of a sailor seduced by the sea, who, drawn by her wet lips and green hair, eventually gives in and drowns. Rather than re-tell this narrative, with its cliché of nature as dangerously female, the artist gives his version a queer twist. Hidden in the lace is the story of a sailor embraced by the foam-white arms of a male ocean.

Pierre Fouche, His Foam White Arms Go Over and Round Me (2012) by Pierre FoucheOriginal Source: Anna Stielau

Fouché has worked in lace for many years, even training with The Cape Lace Guild, partly because of the medium’s gendered connotations. As a male artist, his needlework disrupts gender norms and the artificial distinction between craft and high art. But, in elevating lace to the status of art and achieving recognition for it, Fouché is acutely conscious of the value attributed to male skill over female labour. This scroll, much like the poem it contains, challenges our expectations of the identities inscribed into fabric.

close-up of Pierre Fouche lace-making in progress (2016) by Pierre FoucheOriginal Source: Social Fabric


We are what came before but we are also what we hope to be.  Through signifiers, such as artworks and fashion, we set goals for ourselves and announce our intentions to the world. The effort, the achievements, and the failures are the journey of reaching for our goals. In the accompanying exhibition "Take a thread for a walk", see Pierre Fouche's work as artist-in-residence at sock manufacturer FALKE SA.

Credits: Story

Credits and Links:

Text written by Anna Stielau

Pierre Fouche
His Foam White Arms Go Over and Around Me
2012, bobbin lace, bobbins, 6.4 metres (dimensions variable)
Photo credit: Pierre Fouche
Find out more about Pierre Fouche

Mary Sibande
The Purple Shall Govern
2013, mixed media, 1.8 X 1.2 X 1.2 metres
Image courtesy of Gallery Momo
Find out more about Mary Sibande

Igshaan Adams
2016, woven nylon rope and string, approx. 198 x 71 x 8 cm
photo credit: Social Fabric, with permission of blank projects and the artist
Find out more about Igshaan Adams

Athi Patra Ruga
2013, wool, thread tapestry on canvas, 300 x 175 cm
2013, wool, thread tapestry on canvas, 200 x 180 cm
Images courtesy of whatiftheworld gallery
Find out more about Athi Patra Ruga

Nicholas Hlobo
2017, mixed media with performance
images courtesy of Stevenson Gallery
Film clip credit: Social Fabric, with permission of Stevenson Gallery
Find out more about Nicholas Hlobo

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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