A steady rhythm , a confident hand, a little gravity… grain doesn’t see the basket it is winnowed in, otherwise it would relish the beauty of this agricultural implement.

Home to 73 tribes of culturally diverse people, each with their own language, Zambia is a landlocked country, surrounded by: Angola, Botswana, Congo, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Most rural people here live a pastoral existence from subsistence farming, crafting an assortment of basketry containers to gather, store or house grain.

Baskets are woven from a variety of grasses, sedges or palm leaves.  But, women of the Mbunda tribe collect and magically transform hardy clumps of roots, into light elegant platters, called Vingalo.  These are primarily used for winnowing grain and their steely durability is indispensable to every household.

What casts a little light on the choice of roots as a weaving material, is that the Mbunda people migrated into the Mongo area, Western Zambia, in the early 1900s, from Angola where they perfected these techniques.

Photograph of masqueraders in Zambia by Phyllis Galembo.

In Angola, over centuries, they establishing an artistic heritage, unique knowledge systems and a technical understanding of how to use many tree based products, for a range of alternate functions:

Clothing- Bark cloth from trees was beaten flat, wrapped around the waist as a sarong, or employed as a blanket at night.  Masquerade costumes for initiation rituals are constructed from plant materials.  Medication is processed from leaves and gum. Fish traps and baskets, woven from roots.

Makishi initiation costumes, woven from vines

Basket preparation entails collecting the shallow growing root stock of the Mkenge or combretum Zeyheri, (large fruited bush willow) and combretum psidioides, dug up from damp riverine areas.

Painstakingly excavated, some of these 4ft long fibrous roots are gathered, peeled and stripped by hand to reveal the internal central root “core” and the side peelings – both of which are used to create winnowing platters.

Peelings are boiled for pliancy, then coloured in a tincture made from select leaves, plants and bark. These separate dye baths turn the fibre into three or four shades of yellow, reddish brown and black. The last two dyes, are obtained from Kiat pterocarpus angolensis and Siringa or burkea Africana respectively.  This organic colouration expresses a preference for a muted pared-down aesthetic.

Weaving is performed while seated on the ground, in the afternoon shade, under trees dotted around the homestead.  

Starting at the circular or oval centre of the basket, root cores are positioned to increase in scale forming the weft while the peeling fibres, are woven over them as the warp thread using plain weave and an   ”over and under” technique.

The slightly convex shape is perfect for its function as a winnowing platter and dimensions range from 30 to 60cm in diameter. The consistent tension and tight weave creates a robust utilitarian form, with fibres feeling rounded to the touch and comfortable, almost silky to handle.

Artisans make changes to the weaving texture, wrapping, looping over several wefts at once, to create subtle designs in a radiating pattern, or innovating an intricate series of raised diagonal lines in the woven ground.

When touching these large circular platters, numerous things underpin how one relates to their understated beauty:

Firstly, the subtleties and nuances of the gently graded tones. 

The simplicity of the striped repetitive pattern, so evocative of nature. These floating circular shapes invoke the ripples on pools after a pebble is dropped in, perhaps connecting to the watery places where the roots originate. 

The proportion and space between the coloured bands, gives a unity to the round image and an impression of balance and harmony to each tray.

Sometimes, the coloured ring is slightly off centre, or interspersed here and there with brief hints of interrupted pattern, giving a life and organic vitality to the whole.

There is an ingenious discrepancy between two things – the woven design and the colour pattern incorporated into the weave, that subtly juxtapose, but sing alongside each other, creating a visual shift in reference and perception. This is an inspired device elevating these rustic things, to objects of unique beauty.

In indigenous contexts these designs and patterns have meanings, but when reframed within interior spaces, the sophistication of intent remains evident.

Winnowing baskets serve as inheritance goods, passed from mother to daughter, lasting up to 40 or 50 years and are so highly valued for their beauty and function that they are given new, as wedding gifts.

Old damaged baskets are repaired by reinforcing the sides with cloth strips, and these ”reinvigorated” or adapted designs recall the random effect imparted by some appliqued patterns on Congolese raffia cloths.

Today Zambian women rely on trading their handiwork into the European design sector and the demand in turn keeps indigenous skills and techniques alive, allowing them to express their unique aesthetic and the joy that they feel inside when crafting these beautiful forms.  

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