Margaret Mntambo : “I am looking after 5 orphans whose mothers died. Money from the embroidery assists me in paying for their transport costs to school. I like doing the embroidery because it keeps me busy and my mind active in making choices. I also like to mix with other people and get ideas.”
Doris Hlatswayo: “My husband does not have a job and my work helps to put food on the table. I am even helping to build a house by buying the cement from money I earn. I have 6 children only 1 of whom is working. Two are still going to school.”
We often invite 2 members from this embroidery group to make a presentation of their work to us when we visit with my South African Arts & Culture Tour.
This small group of skilled Zulu needle women call their group Isipethu that is Zulu for “fountain” – a place where water is collected and taken home. This word symbolizes how the women feel the sewing circle enriches their lives economically and socially. There are about 20 women in the group. Some of the makers like Cynthia Msibi have won national prizes for their work. Cynthia’s work is now very collectible and work from various members of Isipethu are in textile collections in South Africa, USA and Canada.
These textile art pieces have become a desirable collector’s item. It is interesting to follow how each artist has developed her own artistic style that is distinct within the group. The women have no other means to support themselves except with their creative story telling through their tapestries. Two of the makers support more than 10 people in their families with their fabric collage; this is a common story. Women’s crafts are a vital way to support families.
The hangings are made with hand-appliqué and fine embroidered details, some with beaded accents. Each one-of-a-kind design tells a story of real events in their daily lives. Stories sometimes include how the AIDS pandemic has touched their lives. Some hangings illustrate Zulu customs of marriage and community life, others are legends or historical incidents. Each is a fascinating social commentary and documentation of a changing culture through this form of art.
A charming addition to each hanging is a written description in the maker’s words, often written in Zulu and translated into English.
Dudu Malinga: “I have got three children. The money I earn helps to buy food and I am the only provider. The work also keeps me busy, prevents stress and stops me from gossiping.”