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MAPULA EMBROIDERY (article first published : 2007-02-16)

Art historian Brenda Schmahmann is doing remarkable work. In her most recent book MAPULA, Embroidery and Empowerment in the Winterveld, she researched and wrote a comprehensive portrayal of the women involved in this remarkable project. Her careful fact-finding missions put her in touch with the key players in the area – women, who believe that by working together they can achieve miracles. And that’s what this book shows.

By co-operating, the women of the Waterveld became the breadwinners in their respective families. At the same time, the artistic merit in these projects triumphed and personal experiences were retold in a visual very pleasing way.

Mapula (meaning “mother of rain”) certainly empowered the women but in addition, stimulated by each other, they developed an artistic inherited creative spirit which will be with them for the rest of their lives.

At the same time by getting guidance from Soroptomists International, staff at UNISA and the Sisters of Mercy, they developed an insight into a society in transformation.

Leafing through the book, which page after page reveals these inspired well-executed works, one feels a kinship with the creators. Each piece deals with some aspect of daily life and routine. There are wedding ceremonies, meetings with a snake, the portrayal of a hospice for all, a scene of domestic violence, a representation of a new democracy, 26 December- a disaster of Tsunami, the funeral of Peter Mokaba, but even such haloed figures in the art world as Leonardo Da Vinci are portrayed.

All the embroideries are done on black cotton cloth which creates harmony and links the individual pieces.

Mapula won the FNB Vita Craft Now Millennium Award, organised by the Craft Council in 2000. Since then the bargaining potential and the ambition of the women has grown. As a collective they were involved and made aware that they had to negotiate and market their work. And by being more politically aware the content of the embroideries became more relevant to society. Political figures like Mandela and Tutu also figured in the works.

It’s the Introduction to the book, lifted from the title of a work by Elizabeth Malete “When you strike a women (sic) you strike a rock” that so eloquently sums up the project.

This slogan has a specific historical reference: “On August 9, 1956, hundreds of women marched from Pretoria to the Union Building to protest against a law that black females, like black males, be obliged to carry so-called ‘passbooks’. The metaphor of a rock, which is resolutely immovable, speaks of the resilience that black women in South Africa have shown in the face of oppression, discrimination and economic disadvantage.”

Brenda Schmamann has written a book that not only documents the Mapula project, it also makes readers aware of our collective South African inheritance.

Published by David Krut Publishing, Mapula: Embroidery and Empowerment in the Winterveld, is available in all major book stores. – Marianne Meijer




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