Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Arty stuff in Cape Town

On my free day in Cape Town, I was lucky enough to see an exhibition at the South African National Gallery called Print in the Spotlight: Impressions of Rorke's Drift. This had nothing to do with the famous battle; it referred to an almost equally famous artists' colony. More properly known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre, it operated for only twenty years, from the early 60s, but produced some of South Africa's most influential artists. Mostly working in black and white linocut, these black South Africans were able to comment on South African society at a time when few other options were available.  The prints were incredibly powerful and moving. Photography wasn't permitted but you can get the idea if you look at the work of my favourite of the artists, John Muafangejo.

I also lucked on an exhibition of ishweshwe cloth (also called isishweshwe and shweshwe) at the Slave House, now a gallery space. This cotton cloth, traditionally dyed in indigo, was brought to Africa by French missionaries and became common throughout Africa.  Again, photographs weren't permitted, so click this link to see some images. If you know anything about the history of cloth printing, you'll know this story already.

Once upon a time, in India, there were some clever people printing cotton fabrics, which came to be known as chintzes. These fabrics were imported into Europe and became hugely popular. They were so popular that the French King tried to have them banned to protect the French textile industry, on the pretext of Indian shipping having brought disease to Marseilles. The English also banned the wearing of it, for the same reason.

In the 1730s and 40s, a couple of Frenchmen had sent home samples of printing at each stage, basically pinching the Indian process.  The resourceful burgers of Mulhouse, now in eastern France but in those days an independent entity, decided to set up shop themselves. In 1745, they set up their own print works, and France followed suit a decade later. Block printing began and then printing with roller presses, and the patterns moved away from the large chintz patterns to smaller repeat patterns. Printworks set up all over Europe.

Pretty soon, everyone was wearing this very useful hard-wearing cloth.

Right at the same time, indigo was beginning to be imported into Europe in a big way. Before this period, it was rare and expensive, but now, with the spread of colonialism, it flooded into Europe in a big way and got way cheaper. The result was blaudruck or blue cloth - the ubiquitous clothing of the working class throughout Europe. (Incidentally, this is the source of the equally ubiquitous denim jeans.) It was this cheap cloth that the missionaries brought to Africa - a kind of round trip since indigo dyeing had always been important in West Africa. (This information, and the images, are from my visit to the Musee de l'Impression sur Etoffes de Mulhouse back in 2008.)

That's the roots of ishweshwe. Pretty soon, Africans were printing their own versions of the cloth and it became part of their traditional culture. Actually, pretty much the same thing happened in other parts of the world, where missionaries went. For example, missionaries also brought the blaudruck to the South Pacific, which developed into the "Mother Hubbard" dresses.

The difference with ishweshwe is that it became part of the social events of the time. White women began wearing the traditional cloth and international designers began to use ishweshwe cloth in their designs, as a way of showing solidarity with black Africans under apartheid.  Now, modern South African designers are wowing the world with the cloth too.

I had a brilliant time in the exhibition. I spent so much time there that the museum guard came to see what I was doing. "You must really like this!", he said. Yes, yes I did.

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