18 March 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Zulu basketry

An insight into work that occupies that interesting space between art and craft.

Last week I was in uBombo, a village set amid the gorgeous rolling hills of Zululand. I was staying at Overwin Lodge. Its owners, David and Dawn Irons were away, but their stand-in hosts did a wonderful job of making me feel welcome.

Staying at the lodge is like staying with the family. There is nothing impersonal about the décor; David's and Dawn’s presence is in every room. The dining room walls are covered with comments from their guests; the entrance hall is filled with historic photos of the area, many documenting the discovery of the role of the tsetse fly in the transmission of sleeping sickness (interesting – trust me!); and the lounge abounds with treasures: books, carvings, geological finds, a collection of Matryoshka dolls (didn’t get the story behind them) and dozens and dozens of Zulu baskets.

The walls are covered with them and it’s easily one of the best private collections I have seen. David’s family moved to uBombo over 100 years ago and the collection spans several decades. The bulk of the collection is made up of Imbenge, medium-sized flattened bowls, some water-tight, others not. They are used to cover clay and palm Ukhamba (beer pots and baskets) in order to keep the beer free from contamination, or to serve small plates of food. There are also many Isisquabetho – winnowing and grain baskets which can be up to four feet wide!

Used less in daily life, having been replaced by modern materials, Zulu baskets today are still functional to some degree, but also decorative and symbolic and increasingly collectable. They generally feature striking designs, woven from ilala palm fronds and grass. They are dyed by using indigenous plants, in a palate of over 20 different colours. Patterns include triangles, zig-zags, diamond shapes, rectangles, and checkerboard motifs that show off the symmetry and precision for which Zulu crafts are renowned.

Master weavers – some men, but mainly women – are highly respected artists. Their work occupies that interesting space between art and craft, with museums and galleries featuring outstanding examples of Zulu baskets in their collections.

Master weavers – some men, but mainly women – are highly respected artists. Their work occupies that interesting space between art and craft, with museums and galleries featuring outstanding examples of Zulu baskets in their collections.

I read this great quote: “Somebody should tell craftsmen and women right away that they are artists so that they can stop worrying and we can go on enjoying their work as art.”

If you have some time on your hands and are interested in this topic (as I am), read this account of life in a Zulu village: 'Craft and the Art of Modernity in South Africa' by Anitra Nettleton

As I discovered in 1 of Dawn’s many books on Zulu art, weavers work using different weaving techniques: coiling, wickerwork, checker-work, or twining. The use of the basket and its appearance is also linked to its form, and there are four basic shapes for baskets used in domestic life: bulb, pot covers, lidded pots and large flattened bowls.

Some master weavers from the last 2 decades have passed away, and while not a fan of this site in general, it gives some information on a few of South Africa’s master weavers. It also gives a great deal of information about techniques, materials and the skill and artistry involved in making Zulu baskets. This is also a useful information sheet on Zulu baskets. The Tatham Art gallery has a list of who is who in the world of Zulu art here, including lots of weavers, also known as fibre artists. You’ll also find a good collection, as well as information, on this art form, at museums in KwaZulu-Natal, like the Eshowe Museums.

Category: Culture & History


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