Sunday, 7 September 2014


Artists from two community groups in South Africa have for decades been using needle and thread to express views on issues affecting life in their country, and capturing history with the art of embroidery in the process.

Now the public has a chance to share these portrayals through an exhibition at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), from Sept. 7 to Dec 7.

Embroidered textile, designed by artist Calvin Mahlauli.
(Photo: Don Cole, Courtesy of the Fowler Museum)
Under the title Bearing Witness: Embroidery as History in Post-Apartheid South Africa, the show comprises a selection of what the museum calls “fantastically-hued pictorial embroideries”. They were all produced around 2000, six years after the official dismantling of apartheid.

The artists (who hail from The Mapula Embroidery Project, founded in 1991 in the Winterveldt area outside Pretoria, and Kaross Workers, founded in 1989 on a citrus farm in Limpopo Province) portray historical events as well as their own personal experiences in remarkable stitch-work.

The objects “reveal the deeply political imaginations that have inspired them”, according to Gemma Rodrigues, Curator of African Arts at the Fowler Museum.

Among the topics covered by these “lyrical yet socially engaged tableaux” are the joyous celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s 85th birthday; the questioning of traditional gender roles; the impact of HIV/AIDS and other public health issues; and current affairs and global happenings in places as distant as New York City.

Curator Gemma Rodrigues
“People, animals, trees, and buildings embroidered in lilac, green, yellow, and red - colors chosen for their tonal harmonies and sparkling contrast - populate intricate narratives that pulse with life,” states the Fowler Museum.

The institution is devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas, and holds a vast collection of more than 120,000 examples of world arts, including a repository of some 20,000 textiles that “trace the history of cloth over two millennia and across five continents”.

The embroideries on display belong to a group of 45 textiles collected in South Africa by William Worger and Nancy Clark, scholars and professors of South African history at UCLA and Louisiana State University respectively.

According to the Fowler, Worger and Clark’s deep interest in South Africa’s past first attracted them to the artworks and later inspired them to make their collection available for further study and display by donating them to the Fowler Museum.

A grouping of the textiles in Fowler in Focus.Courtesy of the museum.
In conjunction with its 50th anniversary, the museum is also presenting Fowler in Focus: Yards of Style, African-Print Cloths of Ghana

This separate exhibition, which runs until Dec. 14, examines how the double-sided and factory-produced cloths convey different messages about "individual and community values, reveal perspectives on taste and fashion, and offer telling insights into the global economy”, as the curators put it.

The Fowler is part of UCLA Arts and is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. For additional information: