Arts and Crafts in Rural South Africa

© Dr Peter Magubane

In South Africa, rural communities still produce vibrant art forms similar to those practiced in pre-colonial times. Using indigenous materials such as clay, wood and grass, they make beautiful, often richly decorated artefacts for ritual and household purposes. In keeping with traditions established by earlier communities who acquired imported glass beads in exchange for cattle and ivory, many craft specialists still buy beads to produce various forms of dress and adornment for festive occasions like weddings and coming-out ceremonies of young male and female initiates. But today these specialists tend to use locally manufactured plastic beads which are both cheap and comparatively easy to fashion into body ornaments and garments such as capes and waistcoats.

Plastic beads and recycled objects

Plastic beads and recycled objects such as miniature toys and the tops of Coca Cola bottles are now commonly used to make garments and artefacts associated with events that mark important moments in the lives of rural traditionalists. Along with discarded string bags and brightly coloured sweet wrappers, items like these also feature in the production of clothing worn by some indigenous healers.

Mural arts

The remarkable creativity of South Africa’s rural traditionalists extends to the production of murals on homestead walls, and in ephemeral art forms like the body painting practices employed in certain initiation contexts. But due partly to rapid urbanisation since the late 1980s, it is mainly in tourist villages that the inventive design practices associated with mural art forms have survived.

The collapse of gender divisions

Today, as in the past, men work as carvers, while women make beadwork and clay pots. Historically entrenched divisions of labour are, however, often no longer observed. This is especially evident in the fact that today very few men still weave baskets. The increasingly dominant role women play in the production of this and other art forms can be ascribed to the need to generate income in outlying rural areas where many of these women continue to live, raising children and engage in subsistence farming while their husbands work in large urban centres.

The growth of new markets

Although women still make clay pots and clothing and adornment for local use, development agencies have become actively involved in encouraging them to produce work for outside markets. Because of these attempts to help women achieve greater financial independence, the artistic traditions of rural craft specialists have repeatedly been revitalized through the impact on producers of different consumer groups with sometimes vastly incompatible needs. The desire for economic independence has also led increasing numbers of women to learn skills that in some cases were associated with particular families. The reason for this is that both male and female craft specialists commonly tend to pass their artistic knowledge on to their sons and daughters.

Beadwork and its Uses in South Africa

Throughout South Africa, young unmarried and newly married women remain major consumers of beadwork which they wear on ritual occasions like coming-out ceremonies and following momentous events like the birth of children....more

Clay and Wood Figurines

Over the years Noria Mabasa has embellished her homestead near Thohoyandou in Limpopo Province with figures fashioned from a mixture of clay and cement. Some courtyard walls are also dotted with sculptures and reliefs depicting domestic and wild animals....more

Hunting for Fur

Some traditionalists still hunt in densely forested areas. More generally, though, they purchase skins from either licensed merchants or traders who hunt leopards and other wild animals without permits....more

Making of Musical Instruments

Although the drums and other musical instruments used on these occasions are invariably made by men, in female initiation ceremonies they are always played by women....more

Mural Art Designs

Although some mural art forms have been adapted to serve new markets, this indigenous artistic tradition is still practised by many rural communities. The techniques and patterns used in the production of these murals vary considerably from one area to an...more

New Markets

Many indigenous artistic traditions have been adapted to serve the needs of new markets. Today, many beadworkers make or cover functional and decorative items for sale to local and foreign tourists....more

Production of Baskets in Rural South Africa

In the past, baskets were generally woven by men, who made large grass baskets to store various kinds of grain. Most contemporary examples are intended for outside buyers....more

Studs and Other Accessories

The materials traditionalists use are often remarkably inventive. Ndebele women commonly make richly decorated ornaments with the aid of metal studs....more

The Role of Body Painting

A white clay substance called phepa is applied to the bodies of South Sotho initiates at the end of the initiation period....more

The Use of Carved Sticks

Among the Tswana, and elsewhere in South Africa, male initiates receive one or more carved sticks in recognition of their transition to manhood. Initiates often embellish their sticks and many also add empowering medicines to them....more

The Use of Fertility Dolls

A long-standing tradition prevails among South African communities of making dolls from beads and other locally available materials, for instance, woven grass....more

The Use of Pots

Communities like the Bantwane often preserve old pots which are used for brewing beer. The value ascribed to these vessels lies mainly in the fact that beer plays an important role in rituals associated with the homestead's ancestors....more

The Versatility of Gourds

To this day, many rural women grow gourds. Used as eating and drinking bowls or for storage, these gourds are valued because they are completely impermeable. Even so, gourds crack easily if dropped or bumped against other gourds....more

Traditional Leaders

In contrast to most communities where the use of beadwork is becoming less common, especially among younger men, traditional healers continue to make their own beaded garments....more

Wearing of Blankets and Cloth

Following the widespread introduction of imported cotton in the course of the 19th century, rural women have been enthusiastic sewers....more

Working with Brass and Copper Wire

In the mid-20th century, these techniques were adapted by migrant labourers who began using plastic covered telephone wire to make items for sale to outsiders....more

Woven Grass Masks for Initiates

Grass is used in making various objects related to initiation. Among the South Sotho, for example, female initiates learn to make woven grass masks which they usually decorate with beadwork or tufts of wool....more