Artist: Zodwa Maphumulo
Place: South Africa
Media: Telephone wire
Dims: 5 (tall) x 17 in. diam. (43.1 cm).
Date: c. 2006
Description: Feminine Poetry: The story goes that telephone wire basket weaving, or Imbenge, was invented by artists Bheki Dlamini and Elliot Mkhize while night watchmen in the 1960s. This art form was introduced as “night watchman’s art”, using woven telephone wires to decorate their baton sticks. At a certain point, Mkhize chose to make a bowl-form, and hence, the art of telephone wire baskets began.
The artist of this basket, Zodwa Maphumlo, was one of the first women to learn telephone wire basket weaving from masters Bheki Dlamini and Elliot Mkhize. Zodwa Maphumulo was born in 1960 in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal.
The Zulu people are famous for their woven baskets, or ukhamba, that were sometimes woven so tight they were used to store beer. Beer was highly prized by the Zulu warriors, as you may have remembered in this Virtual Coe on the Zulu Ladle. Imbenge is a Zulu word for beer pot covers and is traditionally made with grass and palm. According to Coe, “The baskets evolved from coiled beer-pot covers, traditionally made from Lala Palm. With the modern age came brightly colored plastic insulated copper wire, which eventually replaced the traditional materials in urban areas.” After the discovery of the recycled telephone wire, basket weaving has taken on a whole other use and purpose. Today, the telecommunications wire is used in various creative ways representing this South African one-of-a-kind transitional art and contemporary weavers.
What story do you see in this basket? What was the artist trying to depict?
With its flowering bright reds and yellows, greens and blues, and images of people, houses, animals, and livestock, it may appear that Maphumulo was creating a story of the good things in life and abundance on a farm: a family, a home, food, pets, and livestock, love and beauty, and even the insects that coexist in farmlands. According to Caroline Smart, editor of artSMart, and who has been active in the arts field in Durban, South Africa, for more than thirty years, Maphumulo had indeed developed her own unique style when it came to making baskets, with her signature bright primary colors. Just like this one Coe picked, her designs involve women and children, plants and animals, and geometric patterns.
When I asked the artist Zodwe Maphumlo in a brief chat on her work, she said the following:
“When I was making this basket, I was thinking of the nature I was surrounded by in the home [Bizana, Eastern Cape] I only had and loved.
The story of the basket shows the beauty of Africa, nature, and love that we share in Africa, and also the environment we live in; how to love and cherish what you have as a black person; it also has made us to be strong women and independent.
The basket symbolizes the farm where I grew up. We had rondavel houses, dogs that we used to get us food in the bush, and we also had livestock that we eat and grow to sell them so I could pay school fees and buy uniforms… Unfortunately, life wasn’t good—I had to leave school and get a job at a young age so I would help in the house.
I put that insect in the middle because where I grew up, there are a lot of insects. One day when I was bored, I watched them going up and down, and they made me realize that insects can be small but very strong and powerful. They work day and night to not go hungry, and I thought to myself that I work hard, day and night, working to keep my family alive and not die from hunger. Since then, I started making baskets ´imbenge´ for a living, and my life began to change.”
In my brief encounter with her, artist Zodwa wanted to share with everyone at the Coe that she has made many more beautiful baskets since her last trip to Santa Fe and eagerly awaits the possibility of exhibiting her work once again.
Ted Coe had begun to develop a keen eye for Southern African art and objects and favored this uniquely designed piece by the artist. It is no wonder this piece captivated Coe´s attention in 2006 at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico:
“On my return to the following year’s Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market, I quickly snatched up this figurative basket which has about it a playful and scenic quality unlike the previous year’s take by Elliot Mkhize. There seems to be a growing division between wire baskets made by men whose motifs are more abstract and graphic in nature, whereas the growing presence of such basketry made by women has a more familiar, narrative approach to their motifs. Zodwa’s work is respected for a number of reasons. She is an expert weaver renowned for her high-quality baskets that include both geometric and figurative elements, incorporating people and animals. She has become very famous for the sophisticated elegance of the form of her plates, which convey an intimate feminine poetry …”
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Guzman, Alison, and Zodwa Maphumulo. “Zodwa Maphumulo´s Basket.” The Virtual Coe, Oct 29, 2021.
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“Zulu Ukhamba.” Design Afrika, 18 Nov. 2020, https://designafrika.co.za/product/zulu-ukhambas/.
RTC No: AF0032
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011
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