Breaking ground with needle and thread
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp bought a urinal, signed it, turned it upside down and exhibited it in an art gallery, flushing all preconceptions about high art. In 2000, Brenda Schmahmann took a piece of embroidery made by a southern African rural collective and in examining it as high art, similarly rattled cages. But over 80 years later, the world is completely amenable to having its ideas turned inside out.
Schmahmann’s gesture is germane to a contemporary feminist redressing of values and her project’s implications are enormous. Material Matters is a welcome, groundbreaking examination of embroidery, which, overwhelmingly relegated to (bored) women, was seen as a low-grade means to keep them out of trouble. With its focus on sewing collectives in rural southern Africa, the implications of this book are rich in re-evaluating the medium, where it comes from and where it’s going.
Although part of a larger project which entailed a national exhibition and a website, the book holds its own. Rather than an academic treatise, it tells stories. It’s a detective story: Schmahmann embarked on it to discover the reason behind the demise of the Weya collective. It’s a literary critique: the material that was up until now available on the community distorted perceptions of the work. It’s the community’s account: the stories in the appliqués present insight into the people behind the work.
In modern times, white support in Africa was trendy. It manifested in different ways: the protégées were influenced from within or without, yielding very different results in their attitude and art. The broader impetus of this type of imposed support was to teach the people economic viability. Somehow sometimes the line thins between selflessness and self-serving principles in many of these initiatives.
During the 1980s, Ilse Noy, an art teacher contracted to Zimbabwe’s German Volunteer Service, was approached to work at Weya. Together with Agnes Shapeta, a local garment-making instructor, she began a project to market products to tourists. Gradually the idea of making wall-hangings was mooted. The project was a collective: a central body controlled quality, prices and payment. It meant that many people were paid for the sale of one work. In principle, potential for financial reverberations was huge.
This potential, however, was overshadowed by bias and realities endemic to collective work. The biases were held by potential buyers who believed that needlework was producible by women without ‘real’ skills, work produced to be sold was ‘prostitution’, work multiply produced has less value than one-offs and collectively produced art is anathema to modernist values that see the isolated artist as God-given.
There were also problems specific to the collective: individuals have different amounts of disposable time and ability. A blanket consideration of all contribution to a work as equal just doesn’t ring fair.
So Weya was fraught with complications, many of which remained screened from general awareness until Noy left Weya in the early 1990s. In her introduction, Schmahmann critiques Noy’s book, citing The Art of Weya Women as outdated, unsystematic and racist: many of the women who were part of Noy’s projects are not even dignified with their full names. To address these oversights, Schmahmann aims “...to provide a more updated account of shifts and changes that Weya has experienced as well as a more theoretically engaged examination of how the project has been structured and organised… offer an analysis of the works themselves… provide… insights about the backgrounds of individual appliqué artists… [and explore]... key issues and debates about needlework.”
Although Schmahmann’s role in the project was major, she has exercised enough play on the material not to place her opinions and ideas as final say. She did this by bringing in different voices associated with African traditions of embroidery and the Weya community. While not detracting from the clear narrative of the text, as an anthology, the project’s broader picture is enhanced.
The book boasts contributions by Rayda Becker and Anitra Nettleton, academics in the discipline of African art history at Witwatersrand University. It also includes contributions by Pip Curling, a researcher into Zimbabwean Museums, two journalists, Mbhanyele Jameson Maluleke from South Africa and David Taurayi Masunda from Zimbabwe, and an interview with Agnes Shapeta.
The first section, comprising an essay by Nettleton, examines embroidery in Africa. Nettleton reveals how genderised embroidery comes from the infiltration of western values into Africa. This section valuably contextualises African embroidery and frames the debates that follow.
The next section focuses on Weya. Here diverse angles are examined by different writers. Dealing with history and anecdote, this section gives interpretative and technical insight into the works. The stories told in the appliqués are about AIDS, unemployment, crime, wife-beating, and baby-dumping. They’re strong, gutsy and don’t pull punches. These are appliqués with balls. Somehow socio-political awareness and commentary don’t fit on the sexist European menu of bored women embroidering to kill time.
Over time and with the collective’s success and demise, “Weya” developed recognition as a stylistic idiom. Does this rubbish the idea of authentic Weya? The women themselves broach this issue, telling of money as central to their involvement. An examination of side-marketers who copy the stylistic techniques of Weya and market their works as such, shows that the idiom itself continues to oil an art market.
The reader is given insight into the construction of a Weya appliqué. While background can added to or removed from the backing cloth, ‘found objects’ may be used on the appliqué, conflating the distinction between two- and three-dimensional art, or that between appliqué and collage proper.
The third section of the book is devoted to projects lying tangential to the Weya collective. Here, Xihoko, Chivirika, and Kaross Workers in the Northern Province, Mapula in the North West, and Simunye in Mpumalanga are examined. Obviously because the focus of the primary areas of research are on Weya, these projects are dealt with scantily, but nevertheless contain a broad insight into the mechanics behind them and work resulting from them. All of these projects were spinoffs from tradition - enabling local tradition to be seen as potentially exploitable mindsets: “‘tradition’ [is].. something that can shift and change but has an ‘historical reference’”.
The following section focuses on the women. It presents their full names and other details, including photographs. The final section details the exhibition.
A remarkable feature accompanying the illustrations is their guide, which faithfully tabulates the narratives written for each Weya appliqué illustrated. In the main text, detailed images of the works are included alongside their discussion. This facilitates an approach by the reader, dispensing with the need to page backwards and forwards in order to access the text’s context.
Material Matters offers a fascinating insight into the areas dovetailing with Weya. Not only does it succeed in exploding women’s embroidery in an art historical framework, it presents an agreeable foray into debates around gender, art/craft and Africa. Over and above the project’s addressing and teasing out of critical issues, the works themselves, rich in humour, anecdote and socio-political commentary, complete it.