Lebogang Mokwena

My doctoral research explores the visual narratives of authenticity invested in and mobilised through the shweshwe textile in contemporary South Africa. Shweshwe is a resist-dyed cotton fabric that is industrially manufactured in Zwelitsha township in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. The textile is increasingly understood as an indigenous textile, principally associated with black women’s traditional rite of passage into marriage although with an ever-widening range of uses to mark a distinctly afrocentric South African sartorial aesthetic. However, for much of the 19th century and well into the first half of the 20th century, what we now call shweshwe was a copywritten calico blueprint produced in Lancashire, England, by the Calico Printers Association. Printed onto calicos made from American cotton, by the early 20th century, the British sought to establish cotton mills in various parts of the British Empire to reduce Lancashire’s reliance on American cottons. However, it is important to note that in the mid-19th century, virtually all the blue-print cottons that arrived in the Cape of Good Hope (modern day Cape Town) arrived with German missionaries who required black converts to acquire European dress as one of the key markers of the their Christianisation (read civilisation). i

The above historical sketch of blueprint’s manufacture as well as its arrival and circulation in Southern Africa is fairly well-established in the academic and intellectual field. ii This narrative, although accurate, tends to overshadow the story of cotton-printing and its origins in India. Although England’s debt to the Indian cotton industry is acknowledged and this recognition is indeed growing, the same awareness of and sensitivity to this key aspect of shweshwe’s origin story is hardly known in South Africans’ general knowledge of the textile’s history. So while in some black communities the textile is known as ujamani (i.e. that which is Germanic), which is not to say that the German missionary linkages to blueprint and shweshwe are well-known or understood, there is no linguistic equivalent (let alone consciousness) of shweshwe’s roots in India’s 16th century cotton industry. It is this gap - really an ongoing elision - to which my creative piece tries to attend. I have painted my own map of India in the bottom right corner of the orange piece of shweshwe and I have tried to draw attention to the coromandel coast of India with cutouts of blue shwehswe. The coromandel coast was the main location of Portuguese and Dutch traders’ access to Indian cottons, which were shipped to Europe from the 16th / 17th century. I have placed a blue shweshwe doek (the Afrikaans word for headscarf) somewhat at the centre of. The A1 sheet. The doek is a form of head-covering largely associated, in South Africa at least, with black women. Worn as a marker of propriety and respect, black women are required to wear it during their traditional wedding ceremonies; widowers have historically been required to wear one at their husband’s funerals and for the the duration of the year of mourning that follows. More recently, the headscarf has been loosened from these more conservative contexts of use, reclaimed by black women in South Africa and indeed across the continent and in the diaspora as a marker of Afrocentric femininity; ironically part of the celebration of natural African hair and styling, that rejects chemical alteration of African hair texture. In my artwork, the doek is oriented towards the painted India, and it invites reflections on what it might mean to think India back into the story of shweshwe. But beyond the story of the textile, does something like an Indo-Consciousness exist in South and East Africa? What are its elements and how - if at all - does it relate to Black Consciousness? I think this is an un-theorised aspect of the adoption of sub-altern studies into the decolonial conversations that have taken root in the South African academy: a complex discussion in the context of historical and contemporary tensions among blacks and Indians in select communities in (South) Africa (see the current situation in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, which has the highest concentration of Indian-descendants in the country).

Tucked underneath the orange shweshwe canvas is an image of my mother and I sitting next to each other, both wearing dresses made from shweshwe. The photograph was taken on the evening of my traditional wedding ceremony. Because the image is printed onto a transparency sheet and in black and white, the viewer cannot tell that my dress is actually shweshwe and, specifically, the indigo blue-and-white that my family wears at our matrimonial ceremonies, which we call kgaka (the Setswana word for guinea fowl: our totem animal). My mother wore a different shweshwe print but also blue-and-white, as did all the women from my line of the family, who were dressed in either kgaka-print dresses and skirts, or some other variation of the indigo blue-and-white. When we were photographed, my mother, a staunch pentecostal Christian, was leading the singing of a hymn; setting the “‘spiritual” tone of an evening of live jazz music at my brother’s erstwhile art gallery and live-music venue called the African Freedom Station in Johannesburg. In my artwork, mine and my mother’s bodies are floating somewhere in the Indian and Pacific Ocean: I have resisted the temptation to draw the African continent anywhere on this work in the way that I have the Indian subcontinent, partly because wherever black African bodies move on planet earth, Africa is inscribed onto their skins; regardless of what we wear and how we wear it.

The orange textile and the photograph of my mother and I all float within a spherical rendition of earth’s oceans. In my brush strokes, I have tried to capture the Agulhas current (Indian Ocean current off the coast of Mozambique and South Africa) as well as Benguela current (from Cape Point to Benguela in Angola) as a way of bringing to the fore the Indian and Atlantic Ocean worlds in our thinking about the forces that have shaped contemporary South Africa.

Themes: Spatial Claims, Interrogated Materialities

Methods: Ocean as Method, Bordering

[i] See Khensani De Klerk's use of fabric as a narration device in her piece: SPATIAL STORYTELLING: CONDUIT AND VESSEL

[ii] For a piece on movement and travel, this time of food and memory, see: A SOLUTION IS FOUND IN SALT AND SPICE by Fozial Ismail

Lebogang Mokwena is currently a Prize Fellow and PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at the New School for Social Research, New York. Her scholarly interests lie at the nexus of cultural, historical, and global sociology, attending to the production, consumption, and circulation threads of the textile. Specifically, her research explores the authenticating power of the isishweshwe textile in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. Her contribution to the Disembodied Territories initiative is a visual meditation that grapples with the long history, global breadth, and intimacy of a textile that is most readily associated with South and Southern Africa.

︎ Lebogang Mokwena
︎ Lebogang Mokwena