The Thukela River in KwaZulu Natal flows through the valley and, although there have been comings and goings through the centuries, part of it feels remote. There is minimal technology, services are limited or non-existent, and access was made through a sharp-stoned dirt road until around 2017 when a tarred surface was laid down.
In the Thukela Valley, communities live mostly from agriculture and are used to succumbing to drought – and to flash floods. The area where the Threads of Africa artists work is mainly by the Mthembu and Mashunka family groupings.
Julia Meintjes’ journey to the valley started in 2002 when Rob Adamson approached her to compile a collection for RFC offices in Sydney. RFC are advisors to the mining industry with clients in South Africa. Influenced by Aboriginal artists who paint spiritual landscapes using dots and broken brushstrokes, Julia Meintjes used the broad ideas of ‘dots’ and ‘from the ground’ in her search for works. And into the collection, she put a woven copper beaded bowl, made by a weaver from the Mdukatshani Development Trust, that she had found at the 2003 Earth Summit Exhibition in Johannesburg. Then came Rob Adamson’s dream: “Can we have a bowl in gold? I’ll pay for the gold if you can find a weaver.”
The Mdukatshani Craft Group began with Tessa Katzenellenbogen’s curiosity. She was a student at the Witwatersrand University in the 1970s when she became interested in wirework after meeting Zulu night watchmen in the foyers of city flats weaving scrap plastic coated electrical wire. A determined creative, Tessa went home to this valley to learn the skill herself. She and the men, who already knew how to weave, started experimenting with uncoated copper wire.
When Tessa Katzenellenbogen left South Africa, she asked the Alcock family, who was managing the Mdukatshani Development Trust, to care for the craft project. The craft group became an initiative of the Trust, and the weavers (who are both men and women) make a range of copper wire and glass beaded products that they supply to national and international outlets.
There is now a modest workshop building where the Development Trust holds meetings and training sessions. The weavers collect their wire and other supplies from this workshop and work from home, meeting regularly on appointed days to show how work is going, get assistance, deliver and get more supplies.
When Julia Meintjes approached them to weave a gold bowl to tackle Rob Adamson’s commission, The Mdukatshani Development Trust agreed to select a weaver. But Julia Meintjes also had to find someone with a gold license who would make the thin wire and, after much searching, she connected with Noel Duncan of Global Gold. Weavers were using copper from Five Star Electric Motors, Pietermaritzburg, that came in a gauge of 0,45mm – the coated copper used in motor armatures. This meant the gold wire had to be drawn to the same gauge. Mzonzima Dladla “with his gentle hand” was asked to brave the experiment, and Julia Meintjes couriered the yellow wire to KwaZulu Natal.
Monziman Dladla started weaving, but the wire became brittle and snapped before he was halfway. This yellow wire was unlike copper wire which stays malleable. His frustration was such that he said he would prefer to go back to weaving copper. The technical struggles were enormous, and there was a lot to learn. Mzonzima Dladla needed Global Gold’s expertise, and Mgongo Ngubane, now a master weaver, came with him to Johannesburg – their first trip to the City of Gold. And on 17 February 2005, eight and a half months after its start, the first gold bowl was finished. The young men returned to Mdukatshani, and at the report-back meeting, Mgongo Mgubane said when he held Mzonzima Dladla’s gleaming masterpiece: “When the bowl was finished it felt like a stone. Not like copper. Heavy!”
Julia Meintjes Fine Art and the Mdukatshani Development Trust realised that, even with all the challenges, there could be a project. And this is how Threads of Africa came about. Since 2005, Threads of Africa has grown very organically through slow experimentation on the part of the weavers and much learning for us all.
Weaving as a skill, and how deeply people in the area understand weaving, is almost embedded knowledge. So many items used in daily life in the valley are made from the environment, and so many of these are woven. When joining the Mdukatshani Craft Group, a weaver starts by creating colourful glass-beaded items, then beaded bangles and eggs (woven over real chicken eggs). They then work on Threads of Africa bangles, in various combinations of metal wires, and finally ‘graduate’ to making bowls.
We are delighted to feature some of the Threads of Africa work at the “100 Beautiful Baskets” exhibition curated by Platform Creative. If you are in Cape Town, pop into Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre, level 1, Nu Metro Cinema space, from 10:00 to 19:00 daily. The exhibition is on until 2 January 2022.