What was once a throbbing multiplex cinema foyer infused with popcorn aromas and blockbuster soundtracks, was transformed into a serene gallery housing the Cape Town V & A Waterfront’s impactful 100 Beautiful Baskets Exhibition.
Baskets are an everyday part of life for many but this beautifully styled exhibition uplifts them from utilitarian to artistic; from trendy décor to fully-fledged works of art.
Resplendent in a rainbow of eye-catching colours, 100 Beautiful Baskets draws attention to a skill which was born hundreds of years ago from the need to store and carry liquids and grains and practised by the women of rural communities who passed the skill down from generation to generation.
It focuses on the highly skilled basket-weavers, the people — mostly women — who create basketry and should be elevated to master crafters.
Elegantly lit, the former cinema space showcases southern African basketry heritage in a unique, thought-provoking way.
Importantly, the installations are a testament to traditional techniques reimagined by modern design, turning them into high-end, collectible items worldwide.
Thousands of hours went into creating the woven chairs, tables, light pendants, hats, bags, jewellery, bowls and even a dog and a dog bed crafted by basket weavers from the African continent including Ghana, Zambia, Uganda, Eswatini and SA.
Curator Cathy O’Clery, from Platform Creative Agency, says that to create a fine basket, a weaver must possess an innate mathematical skill.
“Basketmaking is a phenomenally creative craft but there are also incredible human stories behind the baskets.
“It is a very complicated craft and you need a mathematical brain to do it.
“A lot of the weavers are anonymous and living in rural areas.
“Their work is being sent to markets thousands of miles away.
“For instance, in Ghana they are starting to celebrate the weaver and make them collectible. This recognition of weavers is new in the industry.
“It is also about how baskets adapt to the modern world — most are shipped all over the world. The luxury handbag market industry as well.
“Bags from Ghana and Eswatini were featured in Vogue, so we can elevate our craft.”
Influential design maven O’Clery said the decision to exhibit baskets came from working with the Waterfront’s Joy from Africa to the World project, a campaign that began two years ago to reimagine a festive season that celebrated the creativity of Africa.
“We transferred a South African experience for Christmas decorations away from the glitter of a Western Christmas in 2019.
“We used a huge chandelier made from baskets and in 2021 won a Grand Prix award at the Loeries for it, so that was an incredible accolade.
“And then when choosing basket makers there was always a story behind the maker.”
One such maker is KZN’s Beauty Ngxongo, whose baskets have been shown at the Smithsonian Institution and The Met in New York.
Ngxongo has seen first-hand how plastic containers have had a negative effect on the demand for baskets, meaning that the craft is no longer a reliable source of income for rural weavers.
Her attention to detail caught the attention of two South African design studios — Houtlander and Mash T Design Studio. The latter was founded by Komani-born Thabisa Mjo.
The studios recognised the skill and craftsmanship Ngxongo represented and designed the Hlabisa bench, now under review for permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Another artist in her own right is Angeline Masuku, also from KwaZulu-Natal, who was taught weaving techniques by her aunt when she was eight years old.
It took Masuku 200 hours to weave the Ukhamba Podium Basket on show at 100 Beautiful Baskets.
The Eastern Cape’s Thabisa Mjo, who won the 2018 Design Indaba’s Most Beautiful Object in South Africa for her Tutu pendant light before founding Mash T Design Studio in Johannesburg, said the 100 Beautiful Baskets exhibition should be seen by the world.
“The curators asked us to contribute the Bright Side Table woven with ilala palm and the Alfred’s pendant, woven with telewire by Alfred Ntuli.”
Master weaver Ntuli, who became known for his geometric woven patterns, has passed away.
Mjo, who is the creative director of Mash T Design, says the exhibition, which opened at the end of November 2021, was a celebration of the art of making baskets.
“Seeing all the carefully curated work exhibited together so thoughtfully and beautifully did such a great service to the amount of time, effort, heart and hope that artisans and designer-makers pour into their work.
“It helped to translate the value of the work; the vast array of different materials, weaving techniques, innovative forms, the most incredible use of colour and patterning.”
Exhibits were sourced with the help of Design Afrika founder Binky Newman who works with weaving groups across Africa.
While respecting each culture’s traditional skills and knowledge, the grassroots support platform has guided, designed and developed basketry to suit a contemporary aesthetic.
Executive manager of marketing at the V & A Waterfront, Tinyiko Mageza, says the exhibition showcases African heritage moving into a contemporary world.
“A collective culture that all people from this continent can recognise, share and take pride in.
“With a strong focus on Southern Africa’s diverse groups of basket-weavers, this first-of-its-kind free exhibition brings together some of the most revered names in basketry, giving this highly skilled handicraft the recognition it deserves.”
Though the exhibition was taken down at the end of February, O’Clery says the V & A Waterfront is contemplating a new, permanent venue at the Waterfront.
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