Arts and Crafts in Rural South Africa

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. 

©Peter Magubane
Arts and Crafts in Rural South Africa.

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.

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Mural Art Designs

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New Markets

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Studs and Other Accessories

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The Use of Fertility Dolls

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The Use of Pots

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The Versatility of Gourds

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Traditional Leaders

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Woven Grass Masks for Initiates

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