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Mapula Embroidery Exhibited in the FOLK ART Category at the 2021Houston International Quilt Festival

Written by Odette Tolksdorf (Textile Artist and Trustee of the Mapula Trust)

I was asked to write a short article about ‘Mapula embroidery in the folk art tradition’, to coincide with the Mapula exhibition at the 2021 Houston Quilt Festival, WOMEN OF THE WINTERVELD, organized by Richard Kennair and sponsored by Global Artisans.

When we see a Mapula embroidery, we are captivated by the strong contrasting colours, usually a variety of bright colours on a black background. As we look closer, we then start appreciating the embroidery details and the story told in the surface design.

Bright contrasting colours are familiar in folk art all over the world, as can be seen in items such as huipils (Mexican & Guatemalan woven & embroidered tunic garments), beadwork, quilts, painted wood sculpture and an abundance of other decorative folk art forms.

In the quilt world, the term folk art is connected to nostalgic traditional-type images, patterns and designs as seen in authentic traditional folk arts, which reflect the cultural life of a community.

There are many different types of folk art and there is no one definition that can be applied to the entire field. Folk art is a window through which we see communities and individual makers of all sorts, from all cultures, expressing a wide range of identities and beliefs. (1)

Folk art reflects traditional art forms of diverse community groups — ethnic, tribal, religious, occupational, geographical, age-or gender-based — who identify with each other and society at large. (2)

Whether folk artists live in the countryside or the city, they are almost always part of a community where people generally keep traditions alive, have shared community values and aesthetics and can help to support each other.

This is relevant to the Mapula artists in the Winterveld, even though the population in this area is not homogenous in character, having a mix of three-quarters Tsonga, Tswana, isiZulu and Northern Sotho and one-quarter ‘Other” people. (3)

Artisans or folk artists traditionally learn skills and techniques through apprenticeships in informal family and community settings, by means of demonstration, conversation, and practice. They make individual products by hand, in small quantities or unique one-off’s – as Mapula pieces are made.

Some folk art artists are formally educated, but typically most of these individuals have no formal art education and their talent is developed through their personal experience.

Contemporary folk artists are frequently self-taught as their work is often developed in isolation or in small communities across the country. (4)

In recent years, the term self-taught artists has been used for these artists who are often, but not always, outside the social mainstream.

For admirers and collectors of folk art, the pleasure resides in the visual splendours of folk art, in the imaginative and intriguing artistic expression such as what we see in Mapula embroideries.


  1. International Folk Art Market IFAM.


  3. Wikipedia

  4. The Smithsonian American Art Museum

While doing research for this article I discovered that since at least the 1970’s there has been a “passionate debate” and controversy on the terminology of folk art and its meaning and also hat some terms such as “primitive” and “naïve”, are considered “wrong or objectionable or outdated”. That discussion can be found here:

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