South African National Gallery
Government Avenue, Company's Garden
February 20 - April 30
In a 2009 performance titled Knitwit, maverick artist Barend de Wet, sporting a churchly suit and calling himself the “Knitting Bull,” loudly—like a lay preacher—implored his audience to “Knit!” In light of the sixty-four mostly contemporary works by thirty-three artists and collectives assembled for this concise survey of weaving, knitting, sewing, lace making, tapestry, beading, and embroidery practices, his entreaty was also a declaration of fact. De Wet is represented in this exhibition by Crochet (Shroud), 2013, a candy-colored knitted garment draped over a standing figure. It appears next to a color photograph by Siwa Mgoboza, Les Étres D’Africadia (After Les Demoiselles D’Avignon), 2015, a Picasso-parodying tableau with five black figures in costumes made by the artist from Shweshwe, a printed cotton fabric common in southern Africa.
Although mostly occupied with mapping the present, “Women’s Work” includes historical pieces that underscore the show’s thesis: Textile arts are often a collective endeavor and are encumbered by prejudicial, gendered assumptions. Africa, a large seventeenth-century wool-and-silk tapestry of Flemish origin that offers a hoary allegory of bounty and danger replete with the folkloric Queen of Sheba, is installed opposite two wool tapestries by Athi-Patra Ruga, The Glamouring of the Versatile Ivy, 2015, and Invitation . . . Presentation . . . Induction, 2013, both figurative works that portray the artist’s queer-influenced matriarchal reimagining of postapartheid history. A rectangular lace insert produced in the 1830s by a Cape Town slave known only as Melati smartly draws attention to the city’s history as a garment-making center—this once robust industry has been gutted by globalization. Zyma Amien memorializes this proximate history in two installations composed of found objects: Unpick, 2015, a display of atomized sewing-machine parts, and Paying Homage, 2016, three vintage sewing machines framed by vertical lengths of fabric decorated with sewing pins.