The Earth is Watching Us

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Threads of Africa


Tim Maggs

THE FIRST AFRICAN FARMING COMMUNITIES to arrive in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, nearly two thousand years ago, brought with them skills in metallurgy. Almost every village could produce the iron and steel to make the tools they needed to clear the land, build their homes and till the soil. Coming from tropical Africa they were used to the characteristic savannas with sweet grass growing under the scattered thorntrees. These provided good grazing for their cattle and sheep, timber for building and fuel, while in the major river valleys there were extensive bottom lands ideal for crop cultivation.

In KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape the belt of savanna bushveld becomes increasingly narrow southwards, pinched between the coastline and the higher altitude grasslands of the interior. But the deeply incised basin of the Thukela River and its tributaries makes an exception, allowing the savanna to extend far inland. The Early Iron Age farming communities were thus able to spread inland as far as Mdukatshani farm and even further up the Thukela one and a half thousand years ago.

Iron and steel were mainly used for practical purposes, but even at this early time the smiths could produce wire, of various types, both from iron and copper. Since KZN lacks copper deposits, and because delicate iron objects have not survived the relatively wet climate, there is little direct evidence from this early period in the region. But further north at this time we have well-preserved metal jewellery, notably from arid Botswana. Here the smiths were producing both iron and copper wire, sometimes in round, or rectangular or ribbon-like cross-section. Sometimes iron and copper wire was combined on the same item. On some items the wire was wound around a fibre core. On others short pieces of wire were bent into clips or circles to form a variety of decorative forms including bangles, rings and chains.

Fast forward for a thousand years and the first written accounts from KZN are the tragic tales of shipwreck survivors from Portuguese and other European maritime nations. They encountered Nguni-speaking communities – those in what is now the Eastern Cape desperate for iron, but those further north being interested in cloth and copper. Copper, and particularly brass, became highly sought-after to the extent that brass came to be virtually a royal metal in the Zulu kingdom. A British crew, wrecked near modern Durban while Simon van der Stel was governor at the Cape, survived with ease by selling heavy brass rings to the local people. These bangle-like rings were merely the imported raw material which local smiths turned into a variety of decorative and high prestige items. These included necklaces and bangles as well as the large round beads, indondo, to protect the mother and her unborn child. Zulu kings awarded the ingxotha, a heavy, decorative arm band to important men of the realm.

During the nineteenth century wirework extended from jewellery onto weapons. An iwisa (knobkerrie) might now sport intricately woven bands of wire on its handle; likewise the shaft of an umkhonto (spear) might now gleam with contrasting metallic lustres. Spear blades were traditionally hafted to the wooden shaft by means of raw hide from the tail of a cow or by woven plant fibre.

Skillful wirework on a spear shaft would surely have accorded prestige to the bearer. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth new wire became available. To the industrially produced iron, copper and brass wire of the earlier period was now added aluminium. Zulu craftsmen (it seems that metalworkers were always men) continued to use these materials until recently to produce a wide range of jewellery and other decorative items.

Advances in telecommunications in southern Africa provided high-tech, multi-coloured, plastic-coated wire as a commercially available material for all kinds of objects. Artists in both rural and urban areas transformed their traditional skills to supply new markets, particularly a western market in cities and the growing tourism industry. Present day ease of movement has influenced the exchange of ideas. Working with wire is no longer the domain of men. The exact origin of this kind of work is not known, although the fact that security watchmen (Zulu men have historically worked as night watchmen in the cities) have practiced this craft, and still do so, may be a clue. Few artists have continued to work in pure wire, and the reasons for this are also unknown, but the allure of brightly-coloured telephone wire is one consideration. Market forces, ease of access to (and cost of) materials, and the technical challenges which exist in working in pure metals must surely affect this trend.

The belated international recognition of the Zulu potter and the African metal-worker as artists means that only recently has there been an environment where their respective aesthetic achievements can be truly appreciated. Art in wire is no longer restricted to men and male paraphernalia. Neither is the age-old art of the potter confined to women, although they are still the main proponents. Today we are witnessing a fusion in which wire-work and ceramic forms (male and female elements) merge to form a new, yet ancient and timeless art form.

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