wirework bottles, zulu 1950-60

Vibrant, pulsating and alive – unique telephone wire woven designs made by Zulu men to encase glass bottles reflect one aspect of the development of a popular culture between the 1950’s and 1980’s in Southern Africa.

Some may speculate that the wire weaving technique originated from a knowledge of basket weaving. Although it undoubtedly informed the practice, I propose that weaving with wire developed independently of basketry and that working with metal wire was in fact an historic practice in Southern Africa, resulting from the earliest metal smithing techniques and then later obtained through trade. For me, the progression to coloured wire was merely an aesthetic adaption to the use of modern materials.

Wire originally had many purposes: It was used in ritual, warfare, and for secular functions as a marker of status and to beautify the body.
Wooden sticks and weapons were embellished with copper or brass wire, wound and knotted along the length of the shaft. This woven detail occurred at intervals or entirely covered the stick creating a lustrous surface endorsing the owners’ importance. Beautiful wire covered sticks and flywhisks made by the Nguni people, date from the late 1880’s and can be seen in several museum collections, (amongst others the Brenthurst and W.A.M ). The finesse and beauty of these examples was primarily determined by the monochrome spiralling weave from the apex to the base of the item. Wire used in another way, as decorative stitching to construct a pattern on calabashes for snuff is a masterly form of embroidery.

Gold metal wire used for jewellery making was evidenced by archaeological finds from Mapungubwe, 1200 A.D (held at Pretoria University). Brass and copper wire are noted amongst items of early costume and adornment from all over Southern Africa, for example: the necklaces worn by the Xhosa people, Eastern Cape, or the sections of chainmail on Ndebele aprons from Middleburg or the tightly wound Zulu metal bracelets or the copper beads worn by the Bushmen, Namibia in the 1930’s.

For 150 years at least, traditional healers used wire to augment the efficacy of ritual paraphernalia, empower divination pieces and aid magic. Besides wire, the flair for covering containers was systemic amongst healers who decorated ritual vessels such as calabashes of different shapes and dimensions, bottles, pots and the top of horns with either wire or beading.

Besides adding visual importance to a vessel, decoratively beading the outside, in a sense disguised the potency of the muti within. Another reason was that beading (with glass beads) strengthened the connections with ancestors.

The mode for beading glass bottles arose as a secular fashion amongst Zulu women in the 1940s lasting about 10 years. They used different techniques, for example: a long beaded thread, systematically wound around the bottle, or beaded loops joined at intervals making a lacy open work covering, or a tightly beaded cover. Depending on the technique, women created simple graphic designs, incorporating coloured triangles, diamonds or zig zags on a white ground. Early examples of these patterns mirror those used on healers’ containers and may have been influenced by the latter.

Unusually shaped bottles or those treasured for their expensive contents, like imported gin or whiskey were embellished for domestic display or later, sold to tourists. There are a few of these at the Pretoria University, and in private collections in South Africa.

Although woman originally beaded bottles, the development and reimagining of this decorative concept in the 1950’s was by Zulu men whose encounter with recycled coloured wire, led to a new design sensibility and a blossoming of this art form. This was also due to a division of labour: Beading with glass or clay was considered womens’ work, while metal working part of the male prerogative. The availability of this material resulted from job opportunities in urban areas, where coloured wires were recycled from intercom systems in hotels, motor vehicles and telephones. Using telephone wire was more economically viable than using beads and offered a greater variety of colour and design options.

Like those in the 1890’s, the shaft of sticks, staffs and clubs from the 1950’s onwards were restyled with woven wire to create bright psychedelic designs. Crafters began covering bottles, starting at the lip and working downwards. Floating wefts fashioned horizontal coloured stripes, diagonals and Chevron patterns that either disrupt or conform to the shape of the bottle. The weave varies in complexity according to his region of origin,  the visual talent of the artisan, his level of proficiency and the execution of design. Some designs were influenced by beadwork imparting flashes of white detail at intervals, indicative of  the bead work from the lower Drakensburg.

The pattern on the bottom contrasts that of the bottles sides, resembling a helix as wires are drawn in to the centre and finished off. The entire effect enervates common place objects to one reflective of the clash of cultures. Distinctive today, these decorative items add impetus to a vibrant discourse on the visual history of the Zulu people, forging a new identity and character for the Zulu migrant worker.

In contemporary times, innovative designs were changed through craft projects started in the mid 1980’s,in Zululand, when wire work bowls and mats have provided an income to those craftsmen making items tailored for the interior decorating industry. Today, these are identifiable works by specific artists.