Copyright: Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Durban

How did soccer inspire an ingenious beading project?

Soccer? Inspire a beading project?

The Fifa soccer world cup – A first to Africa. Conjuring fabulous new stadiums, enhanced national pride and yes, ever-present vuvuzelas.

Anticipation and excitement, are passionate emotions.  Gripping South Africa, they swept like fire across the veldt, as everyone waited for “2010” to happen.

It was really a pregnant moment.

Phansi museum, wanting to celebrate this event with a suitably epic body of work by promoting the extraordinary talent of Kwa-Zulu Natal, wondered how best to visually define this instant, this pinnacle in South Africa’s history and how to entice an auspicious result?

Also, what medium and artists were suitable, or even available?

After carefully incising and peeling back a couple of ideas, one kept circulating and cropping up, as the most outstanding:

Women of the 1000 hills region, have an established beading tradition, making innovative, visually intriguing work. If anything could pack a visual punch by titillating the eyeballs, they could!

If honed to a specific type of apparel, say, hats…This project could also prove great content for the 2010 Phansi museum calendar.

Phansi proposed using mens’ football supporters hats, colloquially known as “makarapa”  as the starting point and inspiration for women’s hat designs.  The milliners could re-interpret these, creating what they thought could best celebrate the Fifa world cup.

What are Makarapa?

“Makarapa”, invented in 1979 by soccer supporter Alfred Baloyi, are construction hardhats decorated with soccer club colours and emblems. These customised items swiftly gained must-have status, in popular culture.  Hard hats were intentionally chosen for protection, as volatile objects were thrown at soccer matches during emotional exchanges.

Initially painted with oil paint, Baloyi later starting cutting motifs from the plastic, manipulating these to stand upright, splayed above the hat. Painted cut-outs included stylized figures, soccer balls, horns and the South African flag amongst others. Some supporters, paired the hats with large spectacles. (…In South Africa, this is not unusual as specs are a common feature amongst isiXhosa young mens beaded attire, since the early 1960s…)

For the bead workers, (all women) this was an unusual project as:  firstly, at that time, the inspiration was gender specific originating from mens’ apparel. Secondly it commemorated a forthcoming event, with no known precedent in Africa. Thirdly, women’s hat motifs generally were inspired by organic things: flowers, butterflies, local fauna and flora, or personal memories of place.  Soccer as subject matter was unfamiliar, so how therefore to represent it?

What is it about hats?  Especially piquantly coloured ones?

Zulu women sport them with panache.

So does Queen Elizabeth and Catholic Popes. These frippery bits somehow uplift one heavenward, closer to the clouds.

And closer to the sky would be right, as according to Credo Mutwa, renowned Sanusi, historian and author, the Zulu were historically known as “people of the sky”.

Married Zulu women, traditionally wear hats, called isicholo. (see my post: Isicholo hats, Zulu people, Kwa Zulu Natal, Sept. 2019).  These vary in shape and coloured with red oxide, they change over time according to the clan, fashion and personal innovation.

In the rural 1000 hills region, of Kwa Zulu Natal, they mostly resemble shortened red isicholo, or puffy berets. Hats are handmade from string, cotton and sometimes thin fabric strips.

Here, milliners abound and hats are embellished by attaching beaded strips and outrageous hatpins.  

Hatpins are made using a division of labour: where men suggest and form wire templates and women execute the concept filling the shape with beads.  This dual crafting method is unique to the 1000 hills and Zwelimbowo area. But with this particular 2010 project, many women made their own templates as men employed as migrant labour, were away in the cities.

Context:

Historically, By the late 1990s “hatpins” in this area, morphed from being clover- leafed wire and bead pins and enlarged in scale. In some areas, becoming architecturally part of the hat structure. Using the face as focal point, the beaded designs radiated outwards projecting into the space around the head. These fabulous crested hats are worn with great attitude! – and were about to get more audacious.

The American actress Mae West could have summed them up beautifully when she said:  

“…too much of a good thing is wonderful!.”

They are also fiendishly clever in construction as wire shapes added to the structure can be hinged at will: either folded flat against the head, or opened up by bending the wire to radiate outwards, standing away from the hat, conveying the impression of splendid birds, shaking their plumage.

It was the specific bead workers of the Hammersdale area, (1000 hills) that Phansi museum chose for their project. These women, adept at making costumes and hats, use a variety of techniques and beaded mastery.

In order to commission the hats, they approached Nathi Zondi to rally these rural ladies and inform them about the extent of the 2010 beading project. 

This explanation was always best delivered in person and I saw Nathi, who is no sartorial slouch, set out for the occasion dressed in dun coloured, fringed, heavily zig-zagged Zulu attire, looking exceptionally suave.

The soccer 2010 project transformed how the Hammersdale milliners conceived their hats:

These became stand-alone sculptural statements. Although functional, incorporating historic skills and traditional beaded strips, they differed creatively from precedent.

How were they different?

Subject matter: The milliners fully embraced the makarapa iconography, of stylized figures and large hands, surpassing it and becoming artistically distinct by adding their own content, such as colourful vuvuzelas and goalposts (below) that are re-imagined in inventive ways and colours. 

Copyright: Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Durban
Copyright: Phansi Museum, Glenwood Durban.

The beaded figures, almost puppet-like, are narrative, increasing the scale and dimension of the hats.  As a result, they are descriptively boisterous, proclaiming the makers sense of humour. However a confident handling of the material and infinite attention to detail show that the composition of each bead grouping has been carefully considered to balance the various components on the hat, when seen in the round.

Copyright: Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Durban.

There is a joyous honesty in their uniqueness and the success of this project is due to the original interpretation of each artist,  making what they love, far removed from the commercialization of the makarapa today.

Lettering:

Free standing lettering is a stylistic innovation.  Made in various fonts and sizes from wire, colourfully beaded in different ways, then attached to hats with safety pins, these slogans became expressive statements. The spaces between the letters integrate lightness into the superstructure, increasing the potential for radical new designs.

Historically, literacy was used provocatively in Zulu beaded strips since the 1970s.  Words recalled proverbs, communicated an intention, reprimand or question. Now, beaded lettering strips, of uniform font, spell Durban or its abbreviation, DBN, in heightened anticipation of the soccer matches at the local venue, Moses Mabida stadium.

Also, these words are used as affirmations,: i.e “phambili”- the best (or number one).  This advertises support for Bafana-bafana, the local soccer team, or endorses the Fifa event, thereby re-defining their beadwork with modern content and a more inclusive community spirit.

Copyright, Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Durban.

Soccer ball images: Translated from the makarapa motif into a new schematic version, becoming almost botanical in form and colour, appearing to grow organically from the hat side, coloured with small chips of colour.

Although soccer ball images are new on hats, circular motifs like wheels are entrenched in South African beadwork iconography, as this below image of a Zulu man’s waistcoat from 1960s, demonstrates:

Tension of the beads: varies, according to preference, form and the artists choice: But a double row of beads secures the edging.

Copyright: Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Durban

Templates: circular or blade shaped, are filled in with beads, using different techniques.

Colour: In others areas the plastic encrusted, stiffly worked polychrome beads create breath-taking bursts of colour, transforming shapes into alien flowers, with unfurled, spiky abstract petals in a range of synthetic hues. Soccer ball motifs can be seen at the apex of stalks.

Copyright: Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Durban.

Texture: Based on the historic beading strips in the 1000 hills area, some figures or limbs on the hats are treated similarly. They are depicted incorporating coloured or textured cartouches outlined in black, or a variety of striped or dotted patterns. Some recall soccer jerseys or gloves. But often, the pattern disrupts the form, providing a simultaneous interplay of two or more visual references, giving an expressive juxtaposition to the image.

Copyright: Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Durban.

The hats are ingenious and defy categorization.  They are a testament to the skill, hopes and dreams of a group of women and of a nation, at a particular time.

For the viewer, the hats kinetic movement on the head creates a conglomeration of images that shapeshift when turning, presenting a spontaneous array of thoughts and ideas…

Fashion show: When delivered to Durban, these hats were modelled by friends and family of the Museum staff and displayed during a fashion show that wowed enthusiasts, eclipsing all expectations!

Copyright: Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Durban.

The artists were mini-bussed from Hammersdale for the show and were honoured and celebrated for their unique designs, masterly craftsmanship and joyous vision. 

Phansi museum’s 2010 calendar featured the best. Pertinent information about each hat and the names of the milliners involved in the project, appear on the desktop version of the calendar.

Several hats were sold to cover project costs, some acquired by eminent fashion designers.

Renowned London hat maker, Phillip Tracey described by Vogue as perhaps the greatest living milliner, says of his own hats………’hats create the possibility to make people dream’.

Well, do you think the Hammersdale milliners achieved that?

I do!

My acknowledgement and thanks to the women who made Kwa-Zulu proud by transmitting the fire of tradition in new ways with their splashes of brilliant beadwork and to Paul and Max Mikula, for having the vision to organize this project, at a pertinent time in South Africa’s history and for the background information and photography to make this article possible..  These hats are held at Phansi Museum, Glenwood, Berea, Durban, a gem of a museum, where they can be seen by enthusiasts.

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