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Updated: Nov 8, 2021

A Soroptimist-UNISA Team, women artists in their own right, took calico, paper and crayons to the Sisters of Mercy Centre in the late 1980s to start a project focused on skills training in visual arts which aimed to be income generating. Little did they imagine back then that this initiative would lead to the distinctive embroidery that we see in Mapula today!

When it all started very few of the women had any knowledge of embroidery so the group started with techniques and tracing onto cloth. Most of the women used motifs from simple illustrations from books provided, however, a few drew their own designs with the help of committee members. Emily Maluleka taught women embroidery techniques and assisted with drawing. Both black and white cotton fabric and brightly coloured thread was provided.

Emily Maluleka (1989) in the classroom at the DWT Nthathe Adult Education Centre

After the mid-90s the women were primarily guided on subject matter rather than drawing.

From the group – over the 30 year period - a core of six artists who design the cloths for the embroidery artists has emerged.

From 1991 – 1993 the women drew animals and flowers from illustrations in popular reference books on flora and fauna of Africa and compilations of African stories. Sometimes biblical subject matter, like Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, appeared as did images of social issues.

However, there was a shift in 1994 when Janetje van der Merwe suggested political subject matter and this led to women including a wider range of imagery based on current affairs found in newspapers, magazines, brochures, radio and television programmes and, more recently, on the internet. National pride in the new democratic dispensation has led to expression in images of the new South African flag, Coat of Arms, the elections, the Union Buildings, President Mandela and other political leaders as well as the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Depiction of the 2010 Soccer World Cup by Elizabeth Malete

The joy of the first Democratic Election by Selinah Makwana

Community needs, interests and concerns became depicted in the cloths as well as individual experiences and stories. The HIV/AIDS pandemic, which hit the Winterveld community very hard, was a dominant theme until anti-retroviral drugs turned the tide. Disillusionment with government services and rising levels of crime have in recent years been introduced as the women experience first-hand failures of the state. Most recently the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-increasing scourge of Gender Based Violence have provided rich material for Mapula artists.

The Covid-19 pandemic designed and embroidered by Selinah Makwana

As Prof Brenda Schmahmann observes in her book, Mapula Embroidery and Empowerment in the Winterveld, it is “difficult to determine which woman first chose a topic as they duplicate and reproduce and re-use themes and images from commissioned works and borrow from one another. Even those who do their own drawings may copy from one another and even those who have developed a personal repertoire of imagery will normally combine elements distinctive to their work with motifs that others also use………..(and) ….Even when commissioned to represent a particular theme or subject…..they normally adapt themes to refer to occurrences that are familiar to them”.

Amongst the Mapula artists Selinah Makwana has developed distinctly personal iconographies as seen in this cloth:

and Dorah Hlongwane has specialized in botanical designs.

A commissioned garden cloth designed by Dorah Hlongwane

Janetje van der Merwe, one of the original Soroptimist-UNISA team who has remained integral to Mapula’s creative innovation and marketing, continues to guide the women towards satisfying the expectations and tastes of the buyers.

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