In 1980 the South African tapestry artist, Allina Khumalo Ndebele (Fig. 1), sat down at her loom to weave The Mantis Wedding (Fig. 2).1 She had recently left the relative security of her job as a weaving trainer at the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre at Rorke's Drift, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. Her departure from the center would gain her a form of freedom she had not previously known: the option to weave tapestries of her own. Over the next twenty-five years she would produce around 100 such narrative works at her new venture, Khumalo's Kraal Weaving Workshop.
The subject matter of Ndebele's tapestries, as well as those of a few of her trainees, evolved largely in the form of woven retellings of iZinganekwane, the inherited oral narratives popularly referred to as “folktales,”2 customarily told by senior women in isiZulu-speaking3 families. By focusing on Ndebele's The Mantis Wedding in this essay, I consider some strategies of this orality-inspired genre of tapestries in the northern Zululand region and the agency of the women who made them.
The Mantis Wedding is largely unknown to art audiences. It was acquired by Charmaine and Jonathan Keep in 1985 and has since been in their collection in the United Kingdom.4 Based on an iNganekwane, this is a complex tapestry that Ndebele considers a milestone in her personal experience. It deserves acknowledgment, as well as contextualization within the body of tapestries made at Rorke's Drift and Khumalo's Kraal.
Little scholarly literature has examined tapestries as reiterations of iZinganekwane and their covert meanings. My short article, “Apartheid Among Animals and the Unravelling Story” (2004: 66–67) broached this possibility by suggesting that Ndebele's comical tapestry, Animal Meeting (1993), was embedded with reference to white rule. Peder Gowenius's foreword in Rorke's Drift: Empowering Prints (Hobbs and Rankin 2003: xiv) discussed an earlier tapestry by an unknown weaver, The Hungry Lion (c. 1965), as a source of relief from political oppression through its retelling of a known story. Elizabeth Rankin and I considered this work further in our (unpublished) 2009 paper, “(En)gendering Resistance: The Tapestries and Prints of Rorke's Drift.”
But there have been more disruptive tapestries than these few instances; I will argue that shared ideas from iZinganekwane have presented novel vocabularies with which weavers have contested power. More specifically, I aim to show how The Mantis Wedding and other tapestries draw on a “swallowing” theme, known to local women through inherited stories.
In examining erasures associated with this body of works, I consider how the marginalization of these weavers and the silencing of their “voices” in tapestry can be ascribed to infantilizing perceptions of female oral art as picturesque “folktales.” I also argue that functionalist understandings have represented women's voices as endorsements of social cohesion. Instead, I propose that some tapestries have evolved as performative engagements with concepts of power and as a means of personal survival.
FROM RORKE'S DRIFT TO KHUMALO'S KRAAL
From the early 1960s Allina Ndebele assisted Swedish art-school graduates Peder and Ulla Gowenius to build a flourishing concern, which was permanently established in 1963 under the aegis of the Church of Sweden Mission at Rorke's Drift. Here they developed an art and craft advisors course, then weaving, fabric printing, and ceramics workshops, as well as a fine art school.5 As the economic driver of the Centre, the weaving workshop employed local isiZulu-speaking women (and a few men) to produce figurative tapestries,6 geometric rugs, and other articles. But having taught carding, spinning, dyeing, and weaving to Rorke's Drift recruits for years, by 1978 Ndebele felt familiar enough with the technical and administrative processes developed by the Goweniuses to start a workshop of her own.7
The Rorke's Drift weavery had produced utilitarian products in striking geometric designs, but it had also introduced local women to a form of bildvävning (literally “image weaving” or “free weaving,” as the Swedes called it in English), an interpretative pictorial approach that would characterize the tapestries over twenty years or more at Rorke's Drift (Fig. 3). Akin to expressionist styles of Western modernism, these large works (of up to five meters in width) were generally woven up from small sketches, in an open-ended manner that did not depend on a limiting design guide, or “cartoon,” traditionally placed behind the warp in the gobelin looms of Europe (Fig. 4).
The Goweniuses had not necessarily aimed to impart modernist styles of expressionism to Africa.8 Rather, they considered figurative weaving the appropriate modus operandi for local women in silenced communities to voice their opinions and aspirations. They encouraged weavers to draw on their own experiences as a means of self-actualization, urging them to “speak” in a personalized visual vocabulary, or bildspråk, as they have referred to it (for a fuller discussion of this concept in the Rorke's Drift context see Hobbs and Rankin 2003: 163). Allina Ndebele's new weaving venture, Khumalo's Kraal Weaving Workshop, would adopt this pictorial approach (Figs. 5–6). She would likewise provide employment for destitute women—including her own mother, Rosta Khumalo—whom she trained to card, spin, dye, and weave (Figs. 7–8).
AUTHORITY, APARTHEID AND INDEPENDENCE
Ndebele's return to Ekuhlengeni mission (Fig. 9)9 in late 1977 to initiate this venture would mean an uncertain life as an artist-weaver. At this remote place in the Swart Umfolozi region of what is now KwaZulu-Natal, the odds were against her managing to establish an independent production studio and art career as a black woman when she had no access to electricity, transport, telephone, or funding. Moreover, Ekuhlengeni was then an authoritarian environment, despite the hopeful meaning of its name as a “place of rescue” or “salvation.” As Ndebele points out, customary male authority in isiZulu-speaking communities decreed that a woman should move to her husbands homestead upon marriage. Ekuhlengeni missionaries endorsed this custom, deeming it unnecessary to grant a woman a site on which to build a home or keep cattle. The fact that Ndebele and her children had been abandoned by her husband made little impression on them, probably because they regarded her subsequent divorce as a failure “to resist the difficulties of marriage.”10 She therefore had to build her first workshop on the property of her father, Caleb Khumalo.
Quite apart from these constraints, apartheid presented obstacles and aggravations of its own. Ndebele remembers, for example, the risk she ran by ordering building materials on the telephone at the home of her white friend, Tekla Heyneke, where she would enter through her front door rather than the back, as a servant was expected to do. In the conservative white farming community in the Swart Umfolozi region this dangerous behavior that suggested a personal friendship between two women of different races could easily attract unwanted attention from the police.
In 1987 Ndebele was finally granted a site of her own on which to expand her venture. But baffled mission authorities would soon complain about the thatched, circular structure she commissioned for it, arguing that this traditional style of dwelling, which they associated with “heathen” beliefs, could hardly be considered a workplace. But as a replica of the home of her grandmother, Zihudele MaZulu Mhlongo, this space was to be a mnemonic aid that would facilitate Ndebele's recall of the iZinganekwane the old lady had once taught her (Fig. 10). She found she could recall Mhlongo's voice when she rested inside this structure, taking snuff prepared according to the senior woman's recipe to facilitate a heightened state of reception. In this way Ndebele reassembled a repertoire of oral narratives that would inform her tapestries.11
Ndebele's concept-formulation process was not unlike that of other rural artists in the KwaZulu-Natal region, some of whom have similarly stated that their ideas evolved through noncognitive means. Allen F. Roberts (2001: 44) has cited some instances, notably the KZN HIV/AIDS Awareness Project workshops, initiated in 1999, where women elected to “dream” their ideas before they made beaded dolls and narrative tableaux.
THE MANTIS WEDDING: DISRUPTION AND REHABILITATION
Although story in The Mantis Wedding was one of many that Mhlongo had related to Ndebele, it predated the building of the thatched replica. But it seems to have been a significant early work, in which she was still discovering the potential of iZinganekwane to inform her iconography. Ndebele certainly speaks of this work as a milestone in her personal survival as a marginalized woman.12 The story tells of a handsome bird called Nogolantethe, who falls in love with a mantis and asks her to marry him. But on the wedding day when all the mantis's insect guests had assembled, the bird-groom beheld his beautiful bride and realized: “It's our food, this!”—upon which he ate her.13 Then, as Ndebele wrote, “this started the other birds off on the same trend and they devoured all the small animals and insects and that was the end of the wedding” (Ndebele 2011: 11) (Fig. 11).
Ndebele has depicted the sacrificial venue as a congested space, indeterminate in time and place. Even though we know from her written and oral versions of this story that the event was staged on a mountain top, there is no vista described here, and depth is only indicated by a profuse overlapping of clutter: disheveled birds, insect fragments, and broken foliage. She has captured the moment when a flock of advancing guests (on the left) are readying themselves to follow the groom's example and pounce on the insects beyond the mantis bride. The clearing in the middle of the scene of disorder acts as a framing device for the iconic centerpiece of the story, the ravenous Nogolantethe tearing at his hapless victim.
That he should begin by gorging on his bride's head is quite ironic in view of the fact that, in the natural world, mantis females cannibalize their male partners' heads during courtship. But here in the domain of Ndebele's warp it is the defenseless bride's own head that is eaten. Nor has Ndebele awarded the Mantis its natural means of survival: the feelers, elongated thorax, wings, and the raptorial forelegs in usual praying attitude. Furthermore, the spines that line a mantis's legs have been displaced to its back and, perhaps, to the tapestry border. This is a creature dispossessed of both its identity and its means of self-defense. The bird Nogolantethe, on the other hand, has enjoyed some enabling adaptation, as his splayed feet resemble human hands with seven digits. He is also surrounded by a red outline, the means Ndebele used to demonstrate that he “burned with fire” because of his “fierce evil,” that drove him to plan this catastrophe. “He did not love the mantis; he was going to eat it!”14
The Mantis Wedding might be interpreted by some as an admonishment, perhaps that marriage should take place within appropriate groups. But Ndebele adapted the story to make a personal statement at a time of crisis. It is an account of social disruption, struggle, and the passivity of a subordinate class: the unwary insects, upon whom the voracious birds have turned. In a set of rough preparatory summaries for her 1985 exhibition at Pretoria Art Gallery, where The Mantis Wedding was exhibited, Ndebele described the profound sense of disorientation suffered by the mantis following her engulfment:
So the mantis was so sad inside the tummy of the big bird, and the worse thing was that it was still alive in [the] tummy of Nogolantethe … and it didn't know whether it belongs to Nogolantethe or to her crawling family which are insects.15
She put this more personally on a later occasion: “I said to myself I don't know if I am Khumalo or Ndebele because I am inside his tummy.”16 But weaving up this story proved the empowering experience she had hoped for, helping her to shed this sense of displacement and loss of identity. As she commented afterwards, “It made me cool inside.”17
Ndebele recently recalled how she found this link between the story of the mantis and her personal life. Soon after she had started the work in 1980, the local pastor's wife, a Mrs. Nyesa, who had a habit of dropping by, looked in on the new tapestry and noticed that it was to depict a well-known local animal story. Sometime later Mrs. Nyesa returned, on this occasion offering to help Ndebele to mourn her father-in-law's recent death, even though, as Nyesa added, “You had a mantis wedding.” Her reference to Ndebele's humiliating marriage struck the weaver as apt, and she thereafter developed the tapestry as an analogy for this traumatic aspect of her life. Looking back on this manner of evolving meaning in her work, Ndebele recently pointed out how a chance exchange with a visitor could unlock a process of externalizing her feelings in the warp and how she was able to adapt the rest of the tapestry to the new possibilities Nyesa's expression presented, thus crafting the means of her rehabilitation.18
As is often the nature of unscripted story performance, Ndebele remastered a known iNganekwane by attaching an additional episode to its usual plot, permitting the escape of a single insect, a butterfly that wafts upwards (Fig. 12), the only creature able to avoid the wedding catastrophe (Ndebele, quoted in Wilmot 1985). Her off-the-record explanation for this story extension is, “The butterfly at the top … is love. It always lives.”19 So the tapestry not only pictures her being swallowed at her wedding, it also visualizes an escape from the scene of slaughter. In this way Ndebele depicts an odyssey of rehabilitation through the image of a creature that transforms itself and escapes ingestion. It is an image she would use again in tapestries such as The Tree of Life (Fig. 13). As for the crushed butterfly wings below the figures, she adds that, when love diminishes, it is “like the broken butterfly at the bottom of the work. … there are so many mantis weddings still in this world where we are living today” (Fig. 14).20
GLUTTONY AND THE SWALLOWING STORIES
Ndebele's story of The Mantis Wedding shares some resemblances with one of the most common themes in women's oral narratives in southern Africa. Often referred to by literary scholars as a “swallowing” theme, gluttony has appeared in records on iZinganekwane since the nineteenth century and over many decades gormandizing characters have been devised by the ingenuity of female performers. One of the most cherished stories is that of uNanana Boselesele, the woman who provocatively builds her house in a path, trusting to “self-confidence and superior power,” according to the nineteenth-century isiZulu-speaking storyteller Lydia Umkasetemba, whose accounts Henry Callaway recorded in his Nursery Tales, Traditions, and Histories of the Zulus (1868: 331–35). uNanana discovers that her children, as well as animals and whole villages, have been swallowed by a monstrous elephant, Sondozima (sometimes referred to as Sondonzima), but she outwits it by provoking it into swallowing her, then carves a route out of its stomach for herself and her children.
There are other swallowing epics in iZinganekwane that narrate the heroic survival of single mothers at the hands of swallowing monsters. One is “The Story of the Great Chief of the Animals,” who is a voracious eater of all creatures (Theal 1882: 165–67). “The Story of the Glutton” tells of a woman who leaves her unhappy marriage and returns to her father's house to find the family devoured by a grotesque beast. Her twin sons shoot it dead through its eyes, after which the mother knifes open its stomach and frees all the people and animals (Theal 1882: 161–64).
These “swallowing” epics appear elsewhere in southern Africa; sometimes they record that more than just families and villages survive the ordeal. In The Basutos: Twenty Years in South Africa, missionary-ethnographer Eugène Casalis recounts tales of the swallowing Kammapa, a monster so large that the eye could not take in the whole form from one end to the other. It devours all mankind, except for one female escapee who gives birth to a son, Litaolane. Once grown, he avenges the genocide by allowing the beast to swallow him, then cutting a way out for the ingested nations of Earth to reemerge (1861: 347–50). In many of these accounts some sort of social or personal transformation takes place, a new social order is achieved, and a nation-saving woman is rewarded for overcoming a glutton's avarice.21
Images of monstrous greed have survived into contemporary times. In his book In the Time of Cannibals: The Word Music of South Africa's Basotho Migrants, David Coplan shows how metaphors of gluttony have been coopted by migrant poets to articulate insatiable institutional, organizational, and social power, including the enormity of white hegemony that fed off their labor. The train that carries men from Lesotho to the mines is depicted as Kanyapa, a water snake that swallows and disgorges. But the ultimate swallowing image of dispossession and consumption is the “cannibal of cannibals, white South Africa” (2001:126, 248).
ARTICULATING APARTHEID IN THE HUNGRY LION
A “swallowing” epic would make its way into a loom at Rorke's Drift in the mid-1960s with the weaving of The Hungry Lion (Fig. 15). This work constructed a story dense with allusion, which Gowenius wrote down when the work was made.22The Hungry Lion was more than a fable, the weavers told him, but an oblique reference to the authorities' encroachment on the lives of local people. It depicted an insatiable lion that devoured everyone, including the cattle-dip inspector Van der Wahl, a man “as cruel as he was fat,” who whipped anyone who brought their cattle a little late. But the racist inspector was so putrid that the lion became ill and vomited everything back up again. Van der Wahl would die, the weavers said—and as for the lion, he would never want to eat another human. So in the end, the dip inspector was actually saving their lives. Here the weavers used the “swallowing” theme with an ironic twist to articulate and understand contemporary events through metaphor, sidestepping the attention of the authorities. Gowenius later wrote in his unpublished memoirs: “People need pictures like these when they are reduced to a state of passivity. … The story cannot be told in the presence of the oppressor, but he does not understand the picture, merely seeing it as a typical, innocuous native work” (Gowenius 2002: 45).
The Swedish founders of Rorke's Drift regarded this as an important tapestry. Because of it, the Goweniuses have said, they began to consider their objective in South Africa not so much as helping rural women, but seeking the means by which their agency could be promoted. As they said, this work was “a turning point. It went from help, to making a statement.”23
Tapestries such as these drew on collective understandings of stories to assert the artist's voice more powerfully in the warp. Apparently this was despite the fact that this tapestry medium, with its heavy karakul weft, results in strong stylization of its imagery. The thick cross strands produce a vigorous texture that makes it almost impossible to achieve continuous edges, thin lines, blended color, and tonal gradation. But such constraints can also create suggestive possibilities. Serendipity was at work in The Mantis Wedding, for example, where the thin insect antennae are sabotaged by this heavy texture, so that their crumpled appearance gives the impression that these creatures have little chance of receiving feedback on the danger around them. In this way the language of the warp presents further meanings that may manipulate or expand the basic narrative in the viewer's mind.
Made fifteen years apart, The Hungry Lion and The Mantis Wedding are two gormandizing stories that do not just provide solace to the weavers, but contest unequal power relationships and enable detachment; the former work by visualizing the self-destruction of apartheid, and the latter by depicting a woman's personal survival of cruelty and humiliation. Early association of female storytelling with discontent appeared in the nineteenth-century writings of the Swiss missionary-anthropologist Henri Junod, who proposed that hierarchical social structures according to the absolute authority of chiefs and male heads of households promoted unequal relationships, inspiring covert expressions of female dissatisfaction. In The Life of a South African Tribe, Junod portrays women's orality not as amusing fiction, but as a product of social inequality:
From the top to the bottom of the social ladder the strong dominate over the weak and combine, in a wonderful way, to assure the submission of the inferior. In the evening, round the fire, the women and the children take their revenge in the Black man's usual way, i.e., by saying what they think in a round about manner (1913: 205).
Junod goes on to consider these oral narratives as “discreet protest of weakness against strength, a protest of spiritual against material force,” and entertains the possibility that they assert an “aspiration to a state of things where the individual will have his due place” (1913: 205).
The Hungry Lion and The Mantis Wedding were not the only tapestries to appropriate the ravenous characters of iZinganekwane. A short text about a mantis wedding is one of twenty-two stories written up on the unused back pages of a production ledger for 1965–66 (although the date of this text-writing activity seems to have been 1973–74) at Rorke's Drift.24 This summary was probably used as a point of departure for a tapestry made by Dumazile Mary Shabalala in the mid-1970s.25 It might be supposed that Shabalala's work was a precedent for Ndebele's, but the latter did not recognize Shabalala's tapestry when shown a picture of it, and in any case, the two tapestries have few visual solutions in common. While Ndebele's focus is on the core drama, the devouring of the mantis, Shabalala's more enigmatic visual realization includes a pair of therianthropes and a large tailless creature. But it is conceivable that, even though Ndebele attributes her knowledge of this story to her grandmother, she might well have been aware of its potential as a tapestry subject from having seen Shabalala's precedent.
Another early work made at Rorke's Drift that seems to narrate an order-contesting iNganekwane depicts a python strangling a goat (Fig. 16).26 Like The Hungry Lion, this tapestry is dominated by a monumental image that spans most of the pictorial space. A helpless white goat has fallen prey to an agonizing constriction by a black python, the deadly embrace of the pair frozen in an emblematic design. But there is some ambiguity in their encounter. On one hand the snake appears to strangle the helpless victim, but it could also be read as uncoiling. Curiously enough, the goat's white forelegs hold the python's head in a delicate grasp, just as its body goes limp.
In a note about this inscrutable iconography, Gowenius (2002) associated the image with “old stories” whose deeper meaning its weavers sometimes seemed reluctant to share with him. The weavers I recently interviewed, who were at Rorke's Drift at the time the work was made, could not name its weaver, but believed it represented an iNganekwane. They also thought it likely that it conveyed some covert reference, finding it plausible that the white goat symbolized the demise of Europeans. Tokozile Philda Majozi pointed out that “Gowenius liked these kind of tapestries. He tried to get us to do political kinds of works.”27 The weavers also drew my attention to the cluster of figures in the lower section, who are indicated as pink silhouettes rather than the more usual black, perhaps representing white onlookers witnessing a threat to their power.
DISRUPTION, ERASURE, AND SUBVERSION
In as much as these tapestries draw on a rich genre of iZinganekwane, they also suffer from complicated attitudes that have developed around women's oral narratives. In the nineteenth century, colonial and missionary writers tended to infantilize orality in southern Africa; the title of Callaway's publication, Nursery Tales, is an example.
Colonial attitudes often propagated the notion of a childlike oral expression in Africa that located Africans within an evolutionary framework. In a discussion of swallowing-monster concepts in Myths and Legends of the Bantu, Alice Werner (1933: 134) shared her conviction that “African folklore has not in general reached” the same stage as classical mythology. She therefore felt compelled to dismiss Theal's suggestion (1882: vii) that the expansible images of female storytelling in southern Africa demonstrated conscious inventiveness. Rather, she asserted, additions to a basic plot were the result of random fragments of thought. Similarly, popular books on “folktales,” such as Tales from Africa (1968) by Phyllis Savory, have tended to represent oral narratives as cultural relics of an unevolved “primitive” people, as Pat Sullivan ventured in the foreword to this publication (1968: 9).
These attitudes would in due course be transferred to the reception of Rorke's Drift tapestries, many of which appealed to their gallery audiences as uncomplicated iterations of “Zulu mythology” or “Zulu life,” detached from local events and experiences. Deborah Bale's review of the exhibition of Rorke's Drift works at IZIKO South African National Gallery in 1967 described the tapestries as “primitive figures of humans and animals shown in all colors of the rainbow,” and remarked on how they revealed a “naïve record of life lived around the kraal.”28 Another review portrayed the works as the outcome of “African folk tales, tradition, and superstition” (“Tapestries” 1967.) Such yoking of the tapestries to a fictional Africa may explain why this practice has enjoyed so little sustained scholarly attention and why the tapestries have often been reproduced and exhibited without artist identification. It could also account for the scant details on these works in gallery records. In fact, of all the isiZulu-speaking women who have made tapestries at Rorke's Drift and Khumalo's Kraal, Allina Ndebele has been the only one to enjoy more than just passing interest from researchers.29
The erasure of women's voices in tapestry can probably be ascribed also to functionalist notions of female orality as benign expressions of social cohesion, embodying immutable norms of behavior. In South Africa this concept was reflected in the writings of Noverino Canonici in the 1980s, which asserted that women's “folktales” were “artistic productions which mirror the ‘ancient wisdom’ of a nation” (1985: 107–108). The notion of women's orality as a revalidation of timeless norms enjoyed much currency in the scholarship in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.30
Writers have also tended to assume that the inherited practice of storytelling was ubiquitous. The sheer volume of American anthropologist Harold Scheub's stories—no less than 3,946 accounts from 2,051 performers—collected along the eastern coast of South Africa during the late 1960s seems to have encouraged this rather romantic impression, although Scheub undoubtedly did not intend this and did in fact point out that he sourced these stories at select locations (1975: 4).
Even if fireside storytelling was once the norm, disruptive colonial and apartheid policies, followed by mass communication and rapid urbanization, have modified this custom, at least in the Rorke's Drift area. Former weavers born in the 1940s are certainly familiar with iZinganekwane, which most heard from senior women, but they do not recall a widespread fireside practice. Some of the stories used as sources for tapestries were gleaned in a less picturesque fashion. All say, for example, that they listened to regular evening radio broadcasts of iZinganekwane when they were employed at the Centre, as it provided them with a convenient source of new tapestry ideas.31
Moreover, when the older weavers' own children went to school in the 1960s, iZinganekwane were being popularized in graded isiZulu readers, notably the Igoda (The Rope) series by C.L. Sibusiso Nyembezi. Although some of the poems and prose pieces in this series were reformulations of Aesop's fables, others included iZinganekwane. Volume 2, for example, recounts the story of uNanana Boselesele and provides an illustration by isiXhosa-speaking Eastern Cape artist George M.M. Pemba of a prostrate Sondozima and the emigration of people from this pachyderm's bowels. Intriguingly, their traditional clothing suggests the extended duration of their incarceration (1962: 141). Majozi remembers that she owned a similar reader, which she thinks may have been the source of some of her ideas for tapestries.32 It is also very possible that the store of iZinganekwane summaries in the Rorke's Drift files were drawn from children's books like these.
A number of tapestries made at Rorke's Drift and Khumalo's Kraal undoubtedly did reinforce romantic readings of a homogeneous and timeless Africa by depicting simplifying tropes endorsing stable norms, such as scenes of “Zulu life.” The Rorke's Drift production book for 1965–1966 lists many seemingly uncomplicated works. But not all Rorke's Drift works can be assumed to have been so benign, and readings of tapestries need to be reconsidered in the light of the disruptive social metaphors in The Hungry Lion and The Mantis Wedding. As writers such as Scheub have pointed out, disruption is inherent in many basic iZinganekwane plots. His 2010 book, The Uncoiling Python: South African Storytellers and Resistance, has offered fresh insights which, he says, he was not at liberty to reveal before the dismantling of apartheid: that the survival of subjugated communities could be attributed to images of transformation implicit in many of these inherited tales. Scheub states that “What the whites did not see was that beneath the surfaces of these stories was the uncoiling python” (2010: 127). Instead, women's orality has been a means of surviving white domination, and silent subversion in seemingly harmless narratives has been a bulwark against subjugation.33 He proposes that in oral knowledge the image of the uncoiling python has been an important signifier of unity and of transformation through a deliberate unleashing of power. Through the subversive use of such poetic means, we are told, people dealt with the trauma of racism (2010: 1–6).
His contention is all the more plausible in view of the fact that rural isiZulu-speaking women in the KwaZulu-Natal region have reported deploying disruptive social metaphors in other contexts too. A notable case of messaging as transformative experience was the Siyazama Project, which was the culmination of a series of HIV/AIDS crafts workshops held in KwaZulu-Natal around 1999. Workshop findings revealed how beadwork, like performed knowledge (such as storytelling, dance, or proverbs), could be an effective conduit for messages on issues affecting the lives of women traumatized by the implications of HIV/AIDS, but who are at the same time silenced by forms of imposed social control (Wells, Sienaert, and Conolly 2004: 73–89).
PERFORMING TAPESTRY IN THE WARP
A performance paradigm may be a useful means of understanding the narrative tapestries of Rorke's Drift and Khumalo's Kraal, which share some congruences with poetic means of storytelling. In both interpretive weaving and story performance, episodes are interlocked in an open-ended way, the teller improvising on the remembered narrative or devising new dimensions of it. Stories are fluid and capable of extension as motifs are added, the performer drawing on personal ideas to enrich the product with a range of expanded details and episodes. In Ndebele's hands, particularly, tapestry could be a variable and unstable means of interpreting the world, the artist an agent of fresh possibilities of invention.
Reminiscent of a story performance also, the weaver draws on a narrative repertoire common to both artist and audience, using nonverbal excitements, such as repetition, pattern, and rhythm, to flesh out the story. One form of rhythm, for example, lies in the manipulation of color, deployed as progressions of tints of a single hue (Fig. 17). It is possible that such kinship between orality and interpretative pictorial tapestry might have enabled women like Ndebele to realize narratives in textile more readily; and that such congruences might account in part for the diversity and scale of these tapestries.
A key difference between visual and oral storytelling, of course, is the absence of coperformance in the former. Interactions between narrator and audience are intrinsic to orality, in the form of cuing, answering, gesturing, call-and-response dialogic, sound, intonation, gesticulation, facial expression, ideophones, and touch. But although coperformance might not be a dimension of tapestry, the weaveries were nonetheless social work spaces, and tapestries were the subject of ongoing exchange as they evolved. Before a work commenced at Rorke's Drift, for example, the weaver would discuss her subject matter with the supervisor, who would help choose a set of colors. Often one weaver would bring a story to the workshop and another would be assigned to develop into a tapestry. Sometimes two or three weavers would sit together at a loom for weeks, exchanging places to keep the strand tension even across the textile, this in turn necessitating regular discussion of visual solutions. Furthermore, visitors to the workshop were frequent, especially in the 1960s when Peder Gowenius would try to draw weavers out in conversation about the subjects they chose and promote self-actualizing narratives that were an alternative to Bible stories or scenes from “Zulu life.”
In the externalizing of women's ideas on the loom, the shared cultural vocabulary of orality could be used to raise questions about power. Through engagements with trauma, textile could become a site of discourse where social or political authority could be confronted and where roles could be questioned. In Ndebele's case, her departed grandmothers stories were appropriated as a means of interrogating imposed systems of control. Her ancestor was thus co-opted as an accomplice in her rehabilitation.
These enactments in the warp could visualize a refashioned, “unswallowed” self as a means of shoring up weavers' resilience to marginalization. In as much as they were retellings of inherited stories, such tapestries were sites of performative experiences, through which women could imagine post-traumatic social orders and where reconstructions of self or community could be broached.
As entanglements of inherited and invented ideas, The Mantis Wedding and its antecedents offer deeper insights into the creative experiences of women whose power was proscribed by culture, politics, or religion.
I would like to thank Peder Gowenius for sharing his annotated personal photographs with me.
This was alternatively titled Umshado Wesithwalambiza. Ndebele gave most of her tapestries both English and isiZulu titles.
Neutral terms denoting the practice of storytelling, such as “oral narrative,” “verbal art,” or “oral literature” are generally preferred to the older term “folktales,” as they avoid the implication that story performance is frozen in a remote zone of childlike fables. However, even these terms have been contested. For an overview of these debates see Finnegan 2009: 310–13.
The more neutral term “isiZulu-speaking” (in place of “Zulu”) avoids promoting a misleading perception of a homogeneous people sharing a common history and identity. It more appropriately reflects the diversity of allegiances, beliefs, and customs in the KwaZulu-Natal region.
The Mantis Wedding was shown in an exhibition of the artist's tapestries, Allina Ndebele—Weaver-Designer, at Pretoria Art Gallery in 1985, which was where I first encountered her work. My attention was subsequently drawn to The Mantis Wedding by the regular references she made to it during our interviews from the late 1990s. At her request I traced its owners in the United Kingdom, and the photographs they subsequently sent have made it possible for Ndebele and I to discuss The Mantis Wedding in detail.
After they had moved the start-up activities of this center from Ceza to Umpumulo and then to Rorke's Drift, the Goweniuses employed additional teachers under the aegis of the Church of Sweden Mission, mostly graduates from the Konstfackskolan in Stockholm, where the Goweniuses themselves had studied. Although the Fine Art school at Rorke's Drift closed in 1982, the workshops continue in reduced form today.
Tapestry is a form of weaving in which the colored cross strands, the weft, are interlaced through the warp threads laid in a loom, spanning only sections of the warp as they build up the color shapes of the design. The thicker weft strands cover the thin warp strands in a dense, “weft-faced” product.
Ndebele would defy the odds by supporting her family from her tapestry sales. In the 1960s few opportunities were available for black South Africans in textile and other art spheres, where formal training at accredited institutions was reserved for whites. Black artists could access informal art centers, but tapestry was rarely practiced there. Weaving was mostly limited to mission ventures, such as Rorke's Drift and the Catholic mission at Mariannhill in Natal. Although black women could achieve recognition within these circles, they could expect little independent status and remained economically dependent on these weaveries. The prospects for white weavers were decidedly better. They could set up independent ventures and aspire to status in the art field through exhibitions and commissions, benefiting also from the South African Weaver's Guild.
A number of tapestry initiatives on the African continent also produced modernist work for cosmopolitan audiences around that time. In 1951 Harrania was established near Cairo by Ramses Wissa Wassef to provide impoverished children with an outlet. Created directly on the loom without a guide, their expressive results were widely exhibited in Europe from the late 1950s. In Thiés, Senegal, the Manufactures Senegalaises des Arts Decoratifs established a weavery in 1965 managed by Papa Ibra Tall. Based on semi-abstract designs made by students at the École des Arts, these tapestries sought to evoke the dynamism of a free nation, but also the notion of an African identity. In 1972 Lentswe la Oodi Weavers was initiated at Oodi in Botswana by Ulla and Peder Gowenius. Based on their previous experience in South Africa, this cooperative venture avoided teaching visual conventions, preferring to foster technical skills, cultural rediscovery, self-reliance, and social awareness.
This German mission station was founded by Jacob Filter in 1867 in northern Zululand by the New Hermannsberg Missionary Society.
Allina Ndebele, interview with author, Swart Umfolozi, November 21, 2015.
Allina Ndebele, interview with author, Nessa Leibhammer, and Ronel Loukakis, Swart Umfolozi, January 16, 1998.
Allina Ndebele, interview with author and Nessa Leibhammer, Swart Umfolozi, February 20, 2014.
Allina Ndebele, interview with author and Nessa Leibhammer, Swart Umfolozi, February 20, 2014. Ndebele expresses the moment of their realization slightly differently in her various retellings of this narrative—reflecting the fluid nature of story performance.
Allina Ndebele, interview with author, Swart Umfolozi, November 21, 2015.
Allina Ndebele, notebook of unpublished handwritten stories, 1985. Ndebele personal files, Swart Umfolozi.
Allina Ndebele, interview with author and Nessa Leibhammer, Swart Umfolozi, February 20, 2014.
Allina Ndebele, interview with author, Swart Umfolozi, November 21, 2015.
Although none of Ndebele's versions of the story appears to be the “true” one, she regards her isiZulu versions as “closer to the truth” (Allina Ndebele, interview with author, Swart Umfolozi, February 20, 2014).
Allina Ndebele, interview with author, Swart Umfolozi, November 7, 2014. Improvising a story in the warp may not be as easy as in an oral performance, particularly in view of Ndebele's system of weaving her works from the side. But she had probably not yet reached the center of the tapestry when Nyesa visited, which meant she could still include the escaping and crushed butterflies.
Allina Ndebele, notebook of unpublished handwritten stories, 1985. Ndebele personal files, Swart Umfolozi.
However, at least one story of a woman's ingenuity is more perverse, likening the behavior of a mother to that of a monster. “The Story of the Cannibal Mother and Her Children” (Theal 1882: 129–34) presented colonial readers with a female glutton who hunts down her two children and swallows them. On the way home she encounters a bird, who expands in size, tears off the mother's limbs, and opens her stomach to allow living and dead people to exit from within. The bird re-swallows the dead, but the children manage to run away.
The women pointed out that, unlike younger weavers, they were bold enough to make tapestries with political reference, in part because of Gowenius's encouragement (Tokozile Philda Majozi, Dumazile Mary Shabalala, Nomusa Elisa Xaba, and Deliwe Mirriam Ndebele, interview with author, Rorke's Drift, August 11, 2015). Of the four women in this group interview, only Majozi speaks English. Exchanges with the others were conducted through an isiZulu-speaking translator, Ester Ndebele.
Peder and Ulla Gowenius, interview with author and Elizabeth Rankin, Växjö, Sweden, July 26, 2001.
Weaving-production record book, 1965–1966. Historical files. ELC Art and Craft Centre, Rorke's Drift.
Dumazile Mary Shabalala, interview with author, Rorke's Drift, August 14, 2015. When I showed Shabalala a picture of this tapestry—some forty years after she had last seen this work—she confirmed it as hers but was uncertain about the original meanings of the imagery.
The weaver and whereabouts of this work are unknown, but Peder Gowenius (email communication, November 21, 2015) does remember her receiving much encouragement after its completion.
Interview with Tokozile Philda Majozi, Dumazile Mary Shabalala, Nomusa Elisa Xaba and Deliwe Mirriam Ndebele at Rorke's Drift on August 11, 2015.
“Girl Behind Rorke's Drift Exhibition,” unknown magazine, 1 July 1967.
Ndebele's work is represented in most South African public collections. She held solo exhibitions at Pretoria Art Museum in 1985 and at Standard Bank Gallery in 1993. In 1998 she received an award from the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam and held a solo exhibition at the Museum De Stadshof in Zwolle. In 2005 the South African Presidency conferred on her the Order of Ikhamanga Award (Silver) for excellence in the field of arts.
African scholars would not necessarily accept such notions. Isidore Okpewho, for example, rejected functionalist views of myths as canonical imperatives, or social charters from the past, and called for a reconsideration of this paradigm (1983: 20–5).
Tokozile Philda Majozi, Dumazile Mary Shabalala, Nomusa Elisa Xaba, and Deliwe Mirriam Ndebele, interview with author, Rorke's Drift, August 11, 2015; and Nokuthula Emmah Damman, interview with author, Amoibe, October 9, 2015.
Tokozile Philda Majozi, interview with author, Rorke's Drift, August 14, 2015.
For his initial insight into the potential of oral art as a “political weapon,” Scheub credits his mentor, the exiled isiXhosa South African A.C. Jordan (Scheub 2010: 5).