What are the legacies of Auntie's?
What are the legacies of Black women in history today?
How do we remember them?
How can collaborative practice create a space for healing and connection?
During the development of the exhibition, my collaborator and co-curator Naomi Velaphi and I recognised the importance of reflecting on how we, as diaspora African Black women are situated within unceded Blak lands . We were interested in the stories and histories of our southern African communities and elders, and there were also questions of how we share and tell our stories in our local context. The stories and experiences of communities that make up the African diaspora can sometimes be "silo-ed" and homogenised when viewed through Western frameworks; throughout this project, we felt driven by the importance of finding the places where we can connect and speak about our heterogeneous stories.
African commemorative cloths also fascinated Naomi and I, and its potential to tell stories. We were conscious that African wax print textiles are quickly used when visually representing African projects - which makes sense - but we also wanted to lean into more specific visual identity. In 2016, in Melville, Johannesburg at an op shop, I purchased a Nelson Mandela commemorative cloth. African commemorative cloths often celebrate a significant event or person, and have expansive histories across the continent. There are many varieties and styles, though in our surface research, we noticed many of the cloths were of men- sometimes women- but mostly men. Simultaneously thinking about the positionality of African women in history, narratives and ideas emerged.
Patterns and symbols hold powerful stories and meaning, however sometimes being a part of a diaspora community our syntax of depicting or representing our Africa can feel complicated; we do not always have access to the foundations of such histories, objects or semiotics that through time are disconnected, detached or disassociated- not necessarily by choice or intention. I try to think through the politics of this, the contexts, permissions and use of images... Through this process of consideration, I found my way back to a memory.
I have a great interest in African textiles for it has such rich routes, its growth representing its transitory history. African wax prints have become a visual signifier of a united global African identity, though its roots are inspired and developed from Indonesian Batik wax dying practices, transported and traded by Dutch colonists and has evolved and developed in Africa since . They share complex identities, histories and stories. African wax prints are multiplicious in their origins and their production. They are caught between being recognised as an African symbol, however is a product majority owned by Europeans (particularly referring to the giant companies, such as the Vlisco Group), yet is sold and worn across Africa and worn with great pride (whether knowingly or not, their colonial manufacturing histories) . Further, there are visual formalities and styles that different places have adopted such as shweshwe in South Africa that has its own unique histories of how the blue colour came to be .
My point here is, considering all the potential and possible signs, patterns, images and formal design that we could initiate for this project, the histories of African wax prints and their aesthetic, are extremely layered, expansive and complex. In thinking of this (and being a practising artist as well) Naomi asked me to lead the artistic creation and design of the textile. This led to the idea of running a screen printing workshop, working with Stewart, Danica and Ana of Spacecraft Studios. It felt appropriate that this textile be collaborative and reference a discourse of African textiles, and the framework of an African commemorative cloth could represent a diaspora of African women.
We invited Afro-diasporic folk, namely women, from across our artistic, family and peer community to consider our project including Zhenya Alvaranga, Claris Ncube, Nita Okoko, Robyn Rich, Tab Sejoe, Phillipa Smith, Vikki Steeneveld, Naomi Velaphi whom participated in our workshop, along with contributions from myself and blk banaana.
As an artist, I have waded within screen-printing practices in past projects, employing text archives and playing with hierarchies in this process. Western art practices of ‘Formalism’ make me somewhat apprehensive, because of its relationship to a poetic of detaching one’s history or cultural connections and influences. It also makes me think about practices of artists within the Western art history canon that have long appropriated First Nations cultural items of significance.
From Picasso and Matisse extracting qualities of African and Oceanic masks towards ‘their aesthetic’ in their arts practices , to fashion giant Chanel absurdly appropriating Blak culture  and many examples of blatant disregard of copying Aboriginal artwork , to designer Stella McCartney working with Vlisco using Ankara print (which again points to Vlisco’s Dutch origins but ignores significant African development) , we are saturated by and continuously see too many examples of Bla(c)k iconography, work, cultural items and semiotics, particularly in creative industries, be it music, fine arts, print and textiles, that are carelessly adopted and transported into a vacuum that does not serve its Bla(c)k communities.
Patterns and symbols hold powerful stories and meaning, however sometimes being a part of a diaspora community our syntax of depicting or representing our Africa can feel complicated; we do not always have access to the foundations of such histories, objects or semiotics that through time are disconnected, detached or disassociated- not necessarily by choice or intention. I try to think through the politics of this, the contexts, permissions and use of images. Further, leading a project with collaboration at the core of the textiles design would lead to possibilities that would only become present during and after the workshop. Through this process of consideration, I found my way back to a memory.
On my first visit to South Africa as an 18 year old, one of my Auntie's gave me a shweshwe outfit. I have held onto this dearly to this day. I had never worn it (also it used to be too big for me), but receiving this signified many memories and grounding feelings– it was my first visit to South Africa as an ‘adolescent’, and the first time I rode on the back of my Uncle Frank’s bakkie. His wife, my Auntie Ester, gave me this shweshwe garment on this day. Little did I know the significance of such an object or the histories that through time it would represent. In sharing this story with Naomi, we connected over an African textile print that was also gifted to her by an older female family member, without being too technical, an Auntie as you would say.
These narratives of women, of Auntie's, giving such fabrics to us to take back to our respective ‘homes’, treasuring the gesture and its materiality, was the perfect foundation to ground the creative process in preparation for our workshop. Utilising elements from both of our textiles, I was able to create a framework that could then house the developments, stories and voices that would come alive on the day of our workshop. In preparation for the workshop we asked everyone, "What material object represents the identity and strength you see in African women?"
The day of the workshop was such a beautiful gathering filled with nerves, enthusiasm and lots of laughter. Everyone was excited to meet one another, some had met before, others for the very first time, with such an encouraging and supporting energy to learn screen printing with Spacecraft.
Spacecraft generously facilitated demonstrations, and allowed us Black women to feel comfortable in their studio. A couple of us were “versed” as artists, but many women participating had never screen printed before or collaborated towards an exhibition. Though printmaking practices historically sit more within the fine arts institution, screen printing as a practice compared to other traditional fine arts printing has the capacity to be much more collaborative and accessible in its nature. This combined with mutual generosity and care, ensured an engagement of skill sharing, storytelling and critical dialogue about being African diaspora women, was possible.
Nita, printed a graphic of an African headdress. For her, it is a symbol of African female identity that takes many forms across the continent but is an object that all African women are familiar with in some way.
Zhenya, inspired by the exhibition's elements of ‘call and response', selected an Abeng. Utilised by Queen Nanny of Jamaica, an Abeng is a corn horn that when blown into, its sound symbolised calling upon her community to come together in times of need. Zhenya’s story and object speaks to narratives of African communities and their journeys away from the continent and also draws links to the significance of the cow, and its presence within both Jamaican and southern African cultural practice and history.
Robyn shared nostalgia from her first trip to Africa as an adolescent and the memory of the women working in pop up market stalls. These women would make and sell woven tops that she had purchased from their stalls and still owns today, recognising and appreciating their labour tied to her memory.
Tab, a textile designer and printer herself, shared her own artwork of beautiful gestural line drawings as a symbol of strength and African female identity. As a Botswanan woman, she wanted to portray the gestural markings and choreography involved in the construction of mud housing in Botswana made by women in the community.
In preparation for the workshop we asked everyone, "What material object represents the identity and strength you see in African women?"
Phillipa, reminded of a significant moment in time, brought an image of all the women elders in her family; mothers, sisters and aunties all gathered together - a photograph taken on a rare occasion where they can all be together, when often African families live and extend across continents and shores.
Claris shared African womens waist beads. Beads are universally used across the African continent by women in many ways to signify cultural groups, adornments but also prosperity, where some waist beads may be used to cleanse the body and others bring great fortune when worn by women.
blk banaana shared a drawing of a mutating gemstone, with hard edges at its centre shaped almost like a heart, its limbs or vessels expanding into a liquid form, merging with the sharper edges of the gemstones. For blk banaana, the historical South African Women's March cry, “You strike a woman, you strike a rock” references this strength throughout time, but also the ever-changing nature of African women. Our strength to continously adapt and change with what comes at us, as well as being fluid, rather than just as rigid as a rock, is a proposal to acknowledge and simultaneously break a narrative of Black women only having one experience; our lives and identities take many forms.
African commemorative cloths often celebrate a significant event or person, and have expansive histories across the continent. There are many varieties and styles, though in our surface research, we noticed many of the cloths were of men- sometimes women- but mostly men.
I have only touched on the narratives of such objects and moments that feature in Auntie’s Curtain and the relationships collectively and individually we all have to each of these. Among these, are archival prints of southern African princesses and queens. Queen Lozikeyi Dlodlo, Princess Krotoa, Brenda Fassie, Thenjiwe Lesabe and Dorothy Masuka are where our project began its research inquiry, and are just a fraction of the many historical women who challenged people, law and governance of their time.
These women are both our entry points in learning African histories, and allow us to understand the complexities of our existence and histories as Black African women. The distance we may share with them, encourages us to consider our relationships to our respective motherlands, to our histories and our positions as African diaspora. What can we learn from them? How do we hear them?
Their legacy is a catalyst for learning how we as African diaspora voice our own stories and mobilise collectivity. Though not always loudly celebrated in the archive, or their position is problematised by capitalism and censorship, Auntie’s Curtain is a beginning gesture, a collaborative textile that is both a commemoration of their historical legacy and a celebration of present day African women in the diaspora and our stories.
Images of the Screenprint Workshop at Spacecraft Studio by Ihab Balla.
Image 3: Detail of African fabrics owned by Roberta Joy Rich and Naomi Velaphi.
Image 11: Installation view of Auntie's Curtain, 2022. Images by Jody Haines.
Roberta Joy Rich and Spacecraft Studios with Zhenya Alvaranga, Claris Ncube, Nita Okoko, Robyn Rich, Tab Sejoe, Phillipa Smith, Vikki Steeneveld and Naomi Velaphi.
Roberta Joy Rich is a Narrm (Melbourne) based multi-disciplinary visual artist born on Wathaurong country. Roberta implements language, storytelling, archives and sometimes satire, drawing from various socio-political, historical and popular culture epistemologies in her video, print, installation and mixed media projects. Engaging with notions of “authenticity,” Roberta hopes to deconstruct colonial modalities and propose sites of self-determination within her practice. Roberta has exhibited projects in Narrm, interstate and across South Africa, and is the co-curator of And she was wearing trousers: a call to our heroines.
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