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Chapter 2 Mapula Embroidery as FOLK ART by Odette Tolksdorf

Folk art consists of all forms of visual art made by hand, in the context of folk culture and it embraces a wide range of media including paint, cloth, wood, paper, clay, hide, horn, straw, metal and more.

In fact, it seems there’s hardly any material that has not been used somewhere in folk art! (1)

Illala baskets, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

There are a great variety of objects covered by the term "folk art" and this includes paintings, textiles, carvings, furniture, and countless other objects.

Mapula embroideries have recognisable characteristics of folk art and one of them is being handmade. Folk art objects generally have their origin in functional items and have some kind of practical use, rather than being purely decorative or aesthetic visual art. However miniatures for example, were widely created simply for pleasure and were not utilitarian.

The large embroidered cloths that Mapula creates were originally made for use as square or rectangular tablecloths. Embroidered images on the tablecloths were positioned so the images had a quarter turn as they went around each of the 4 sides of the tablecloth. So when a person sits at the table, the image is the ‘right’ way up on all 4 sides. If those cloths were hung on the wall then some images were upside down. This gave a certain quirky eccentricity to the pieces.

Later, Mapula decided to make wall-hangings instead of tablecloths and then all images were positioned in one direction.

One aspect of folk art that we see often is that traditional rules of proportion and perspective are not used. (2)

Images may be realistic or simplified by abstraction, or distorted and exaggerated. Styles vary from being meticulously executed to being free and loose. (3)

Where images are portrayed in Mapula embroideries, there’s a preference for flat shapes, profile views, silhouettes and outlines, which is common in folk art.

Folk art can be simple undecorated objects for everyday use and it can also be highly decorated objects with paint and carving, created for a special purpose.

In many rural communities, art and crafts are made in the artist’s spare time and their main activity is farming and/or looking after family and carrying out duties around their home environment. For Mapula artists, being able to do their embroidery work from home is a great benefit.

Some folk art is made anonymously, but because of its specific style it can be identified with a particular region or group. In the case of Mapula embroideries, that style personality is recognised in the use of a particular black background fabric and specific threads, as well as the embroidery and the story-telling feature of the embroidered cloths. At the entrance to the galleries at Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg, folk art is defined as “paintings, sculptures, and other objects created by talented, self-trained artists and craftsmen.” (Comment by Colvin English: I would add to this definition that to me true Folk Art is often based in practicality but demonstrates our need to have beauty in our everyday life. Function does not disallow beauty.)

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