Woven Together

Africa is the repository of rich and diverse cultures and stories, often expressed through craft mediums such as basket weaving, beading, pottery, wirework and carving. Preserving these art forms is vital; they are a window into the ancestral traditions of a community’s past. By sustaining them, we preserve these beliefs, values and customs for future generations.

Historically, crafting was restricted to a leisure pursuit. However, craft has become the first entry into the economy for many rural women as they use their creativity, hard work, and skills passed down by women to support their families and communities.

Women’s involvement in craft has enormous potential to further contribute to the economy. However, issues such as a need for more available materials, distribution networks, or even business education have been barriers to women from becoming small-enterprise owners as opposed to casual craft product producers.

Breaking down these barriers is at the heart of the award-winning Joy From Africa to the World, a movement championed by the V&A Waterfront to give craftspeople, predominately women, an ongoing platform to showcase their creativity whilst providing employment and mentoring. It’s also about creating change and compassion in society and business and a wake-up call for understanding and appreciating African craft’s value and distinctiveness and how it is prized globally. Thanks to this platform and the 100 Beautiful Baskets exhibition (part of Joy from Africa to the World), we’ve been privileged to witness and work with women and women-led collectives who preserve, transmit and champion these ancestral craft skills.



Eswatini dreaming


Take Tintsaba, for example. Tintsaba, which means mountains, was developed in 1985 to harness the Eswatini people’s skills and creativity. Founded by Sheila Freemantle, this women-led initiative is prized for its refined sisal basketry technique and natural jewellery. Freemantle’s vision was to work with the talented women of rural eSwatini so that they could grow in personal and financial independence whilst tapping into their ancestral skills.

From the beginning, Tintsaba made a social and environmental commitment to its crafters, from regular handcraft training sessions to workshops on topics such as family health and the sustainable use of resources through organic gardening and fruit and indigenous tree planting.

Starting with only 12 local women, it has trained and worked with over 1,400 women in rural Eswatini and is considered a global leader in decorative basketry.


Collaboration in design


Master weaver Beauty Ngxongo’s baskets have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and The Met in New York. “I’m someone who lives to weave and continues to learn,” she says. With their graceful, feminine curves, Beauty’s baskets reflect her belief in the strength and resourcefulness of women, who, through skills learning and sharing of skills, have turned Hlabisa into a centre of Zulu basket weaving.

Two South African design studios, Houtlander and Mash.T Design Studio, asked to collaborate with Beauty and her fellow Hlabisa weavers. Commissioned to create a piece of uniquely South African art for an exhibition in Paris, they developed a bench with a curving back reminiscent of the undulating hills of KZN, which took Beauty and the master weavers of Hlabisa just over 1 350 hours to weave. The Hlabisa Bench is currently under review for the permanent collection of Paris’s Centre Pompidou.


The pattern master: Angeline Masuku


Angeline Masuku is a master weaver who also lives near Hlabisa, KZN. She started weaving when she was just eight years old in 1975. Taught by her aunt, her interest in weaving was supplemented by her exposure to Zulu craft traditions, which became part of the African school curriculum to revive the craft of Zulu basket weaving, which had previously shown signs of dying out.

Angeline honed her craft from these two sources, learning everything from preparing the IIlala palm for weaving, sourcing natural dyes, and finally knotting. By age 18, Angeline was an artist in her own right, leading the way for the next generation of female weavers. She continues to teach basket weaving to women so they can create and pass this skill on to the next generation whilst supporting their families.


The connector


Binky Newman of Design Afrika is a great champion of the African basket industry, and many of the baskets featured in 100 Beautiful Baskets were located thanks to her expertise and guidance.
Binky established Design Afrika after years of involvement in various aspects of African craft. Her passion for baskets has taken her to remote parts of the continent to track down weavers, and she is now an acknowledged reference in African basketry. ‘My travels into the bush, meeting amazing traditional basket weavers in tucked away villages who had the ancient and pure craft of basketry in their blood, inspired my creative spirit; I knew then that I wanted to showcase this dwindling craft in a new light,’ she says.

Along with her team at Design Afrika, Binky’s fundamental mission is to nurture communities’ creative and entrepreneurial initiatives by encouraging the production of high-quality, on-trend products. One of Design Afrika’s most unforgettable achievements? “Being part of Joy from Africa to the World, a fantastic showcase of handmade craft in an international environment,” says Binky. “I will never forget the delight I saw on the faces of the weavers when I took them to see the Christmas decorations they had worked on for months.”