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South Africa's Arts and Crafts by Priyanka ,  Jan 31, 2013

No doubt about it – South Africans are a crafty bunch. The country's people produce a remarkable range of arts and crafts, working from the pavements and markets of the big cities to deep rural enclaves, with every possible form of traditional artwork – and then some.

There's a lot of new work in traditional media, with artists constantly developing the African crafts repertoire. These range from pretty tableware, Christmas tree decorations and magnificent embroidered cloths to the simplest of items, such as keyrings and candle-holders.

Shops, markets and collectives dealing in African craft are thriving, providing much-needed employment and income in communities such as Fugitive's Drift in KwaZulu-Natal, which offers a huge variety of basketry, or the Northern Cape Schmidtsdrift community of displaced San people, who produce paintings that constitute an imaginative and highly coloured extension of ancient rock art.With characteristic inventiveness, South Africans have adapted every possible medium to a market that feeds both locals and tourists.

In addition to the standard materials such as beads, grass, leather, fabric and clay, pieces are made using telephone wire, plastic bags, petrol cans and bottle tops – even food tin labels are used to create brightly coloured papier mache bowls.

On sale on many a South African street corner are objects made of wire, ranging from representations of the globe to cars and motorcycles – which are capable of manipulated movement – to joke cellphones and working radios.

African crafts can be extremely variable. Variations can include geographical or tribal differences, antique, old or new, the degree of Western or other influences, hand or machine tools used, and the degree of handwork involved.

Tribal crafts have always been distinctive and much folklore can be attached to a particular artefact or pattern giving meaning to it.  Antique tribal artefacts have become collectors pieces,  Consequently there is much faking and 'aging' of some lines such as masks.

Artifacts from foreign cultures are becoming increasingly absorbed over time and are blended into tribal use. For 300 years this has been happening in South Africa and for centuries there has been trade and interaction between Europe and North and West Africa while there has been Arab trade down the East coast of the continent. Outside influences have increased exponentially of late with "modernisation". As a result of this cultural interaction, many tools and utensils have been adopted and integrated into African culture - a process that still continues.

With the advent of industrialisation, some lines have lent themselves to partial factory production such as metal work, textiles and woodwork. Other lines such as beadwork, basket making and wood carving have remained largely in the hands of individuals and small groups, and follow more traditional methods, shapes and patterns.

Even with goods which are partially factory made, the rule is for the rough shaping to be done by machine while the labour-intensive finishing is done by hand. This leaves an element of individuality on the product, unlike most Western factory produced goods. Irrespective of the origin or modernity of an article, the distinguishing thing about African crafts is the pattern, design and colours used, which give it a distinctly African flavour.

An example of this is Bushman paintings. There are only a few people who commission actual Bushmen in the Kalahari to do designs for them. Many people have copied original Bushman paintings while others use the style of Bushman painting in their own designs. Such designs may appear on things like wall hangings, clocks or place mats, which are entirely foreign to the original painters.

Bushman Art at the Cederberg

PictureIn caves and overhangs throughout the area, San rock art can be found, evidence of the earliest human inhabitants. European settlement brought forestry and some agriculture, and led to massive destruction of the local cedar trees, with thousands felled for telephone poles, furniture and housing. The European arrival also led to the elimination of the San population. In the north, the old Moravian mission station of Wupperthal still remains, the heart of a small subsistence farming community, and home to a local industry producing velskoene, traditional soft leather shoes.The Cederberg is one of the best areas for ancient San (Bushmen) rock art in the world, with over 2,500 discovered sites, a number of which are easily accessible from Mount Ceder.The Cederberg Mountains are filled with silent stories of Bushman rock art. Some are clear depictions of everyday events, other are enigmatic. Thousands of years old, this Bushmen rock art speaks of the inhabitants of these rugged mountains, who lived lightly within a world they understood, and danced and painted energetically. Their legacy litters the Cedarberg, along well-known trails that need no guide to find the way. You may be fortunate to discover one of the thousands of paintings not yet seen by modern eyes. There are a number of trails and rock art sites to visit on the Mount Ceder, with no crowds or queues, where the only fence between you and the living art is appreciative respect.

Folk art, high art

South African folk art is also making inroads into Western-style "high art". The work of ceramicist Bonnie Ntshalintshali, with its almost phantasmagoric detail, has gone well beyond the confines of traditional African pottery – yet her works could still be used at your table.

Sculptor Phutuma Seoka is another artist who has taken a traditional form and given it a personal twist. In his case, the carving of figures using the inherent curves and forks of tree branches, common in the Venda region, is used to creating a cast of eccentric characters.

Some South African artists in the folk art mode have come up with ideas quite out of left field – like the late Chickenman Mkize, who made (now highly valued) mock roadsigns out of cheap materials, emblazoning them with eccentric messages.

The fact that Mkize was illiterate, and was transcribing words written out by others without noting the spaces between the words, adds to the charm of the works. One of them declares "NODRUNK ENBUMS"; another asks, pertinently, "BUTISI TART?"

The Ndebele tradition of house-painting, part of the widespread African practice of painting or decorating the exteriors of homes, burgeoned amazingly with the advent of commercial paints.

It also gave rise to artists such as Esther Mahlangu, who has put her adaptations of the distinctive, highly coloured geometric Ndebele designs on everything from cars to aeroplanes.

By way of an enlightening contrast, as well as a pure visual feast, there are many Ndebele villages to be visited in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces – and the distinctive Ndebele style has been extended beautifully to beadwork.

From traditional to commercial

A high level of skill is brought to the production of work that has long been a part of African society, and has now found new commercial outlets.

South African beadwork, once the insignia of tribal royalty alone, has today found a huge range of applications, from the creation of coverings for everything from bottles to matchboxes – and the reproduction of the red Aids ribbon in the form of small Zulu beadworks known as Zulu love letters.

Basketry and ceramics, of course, were long ago brought to a pitch of perfection in traditional South African society, and the outgrowths of these forms today grace gallery plinths as often as they find a place on suburban shelves.

There are several important collections of African art in South Africa, such as the Standard Bank collection at the Gertrude Posel Gallery at Wits University in Johannesburg, or the Durban Art Gallery, housing works of historical and anthropological significance.

There can be few other places in the world where you can see this variety of African arts and crafts, whether they be masks made in one of the continent's many styles, or carved chairs, or embroidered or appliqué cloths.

At the Rooftop Market at Johannesburg's Rosebank Mall, and at its African Craft Market, work from all over the continent jostles for buyers' attention. Many merchants and organisations sell craft goods online: check out the brief list of links at right.

Shona Sculpture - 'Infinity' by Sailas Makumba

Shona Sculpture - 'Infinity' by Sailas Makumba

African Cooking Stove

African Cooking Stove
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