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Travelling totems head to Cape Town for the festive season

The V&A Waterfront has commissioned the design and build of eight beautifully hand-crafted totems which will form the cornerstone of their décor over this festive season. These totems have been created by local communities from around the country who are known for the creativity and celebration of South African craft and heritage.

totem in Cape Town

The totems are part of the V&A Waterfront’s Joy from Africa to the World campaign, in which Africa’s most visited destination sets about reimagining a festive season that celebrates its African roots. The result is an approach to the festive season that prizes local design and sustainability, while giving visitors a truly warm and creative welcome.

Our aim is to take visitors on a journey of discovery beyond our neighbourhood. We are supporting local communities and paying respect where respect is due. Each totem is a beacon for many communities around the country. Each creation is a physical manifestation of the art, craft or skill synonymous with its area of origin. Through the documentation of their creation, the totems will be used to shine a light on various parts of South Africa and their local economies.’

Tinyiko Mageza, Executive Manager: Marketing at the V&A Waterfront
travelling totems in Cape Town
Monica at Projekt Studio

The featured communities behind these totems are:

Ukuziqhenya (Wow Zulu) by Africa!Ignite, made in Emazizini, Indanda, Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal

Africa!Ignite is a leading rural-development agency based in KwaZulu-Natal, working increasingly more across the rest of South Africa. The agency is known for its holistic programmes that support rural communities to create meaningful livelihoods.

The totem, Ukuziqhenya,displays the skills passed down through generations of Zulu craft culture. Beading, weaving and embroidery show off the expertise in handcraft that is revered in KwaZulu-Natal, elevating it in this piece of contemporary design.

‘We take cultural, traditional skills and put the ‘wow’ into them,’ says Bongiwe Mlangeni, Craft and Tourism Programmes Manager at Africa!Ignite. 

Keiskamma Art Project

Umthombo by African Art Centre, made in Manguzi, Kwamashu and Greytown

The African Art Centre was established in Durban in 1959 to preserve and mentor the development of arts, craft and design, showcasing local creative talent to stimulate sustainable social and economic upliftment.

‘African arts and crafts are an enormous part of our cultural heritage and must be preserved and nurtured for future generations,’ says Janine Caramanus, African Art Centre Manager.

Umthombo, which means ‘tree with the purest water’ in isiZulu, was created using wooden sculpted animals and pillars and then decorated in telewire. Umthombo welcomes all the wild creatures and animals to its branches, bringing them together to complete the circle of life. It is the source of life.

Bringing Joy by Mapula Embroidery Project, made in the Winterveld 

The Mapula women use drawing and embroidery to capture their stories of hope, survival and thriving. The fabric on which the artists’ stories are told through embroidery is 100% cotton, with the three-dimensional elements of this totem being brought to life, with foam, batting and haberdashery items.

The embroidery stitch the Mapula women mostly use is called the stem stitch, while some have started experimenting with different stitches, such as running or cross-stitching, as well as French knots.

travelling totems in Cape Town

Umoya Wasekasi by Monkeybiz, made in Khayelitsha

Umoya Wasekasi, which is isiXhosa for ‘spirit of the township’, is the story of Monkeybiz in Khayelitsha. Noloyiso Maphakathi, who beaded the sun and moon that sits at the apex, says the sun symbolises happiness in her Xhosa culture. In many African cultures the moon can, depending on its phase, predict luck or misfortune.

Having the moon and sun at the top of the totem represents the cycle of life, which is made up of day and night; light and darkness – much like the lived experiences of many people in marginalised townships. The beaded dolls represent women’s empowerment – one of the core missions of Monkeybiz.

Izintsika Zamandla (Pillars of Strength) by the Keiskamma Art Project, made in Hamburg

travelling totems in Cape Town
Keiskamma Art Project

This totem celebrates the women who are the pillars of the Hamburg community and who have been the lifeblood of the Kesikamma Art Project for the past 20 years. The three concentric wings on each layer of this totem tell a story about women and their resilience. The narrative illustrates how these women have been the mainstay of the art project, and how they have persevered under trying circumstances in their communities. It also represents the ecological uniqueness of Hamburg, where they live, and its beautiful indigenous plant life, represented by aloes, strelitzias, irises and arum lilies. 

Lead artist Ndileka Mapuma says that being able to draw and create embroidery for the totem was a huge achievement for her. ‘I didn’t know anything about arts and craft when I joined the project in 2003,’ she says. Now she counts sewing and painting amongst her other creative skills. ‘This job gives me pride, because through it I can educate my kids, put food on the table and we can build homes.’ 

Two bays by Ronel Jordaan & Projekt, made in Cape Town

The women who created this totem live in three of Cape Town’s settlements. Those who work at Ronel Jordaan’s Capricorn Park studio hail from Vrygrond and Masiphumelele, while most of the crochet artists at Projekt live in Imizamo Yethu, Hout Bay, having moved to Cape Town from Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Both Ronel Jordaan and Peta Becker are passionate about social upliftment and skills development, and their two design companies are testament to this. ‘Projekt was designed for women to be able to create income while working at home,’ says Becker.

Monica at Projekt Studio

This totem is inspired by the oceans, of which so little is known about, yet they make up 70 percent of the earth’s surface. ‘The ocean holds life forms of such beauty and inspiration. It [the totem] symbolises the resurgence of the ocean and is a metaphor for the changes our projects have experienced since lockdown in March 2020’, she says.

Coral, seaweed and jellyfish have been interpreted in felt and crochet forms that fill this totem, with the notion that one should always look beyond the surface to find hope and positive reasons to embrace change.

Life, Love and Happiness by Magpie Studio, made in Barrydale

Intrinsic to Magpie Studio’s process is the desire to creatively use found and discarded matter. The studio uses a lot of plastic lids, hundreds of recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic soda bottles and other materials left for waste, with the ethos underpinning their approach of being eco-friendly or upcycling. 

travelling totems in Cape Town
Magpie Studio

All the elements used to make the totem were found and repurposed in Barrydale, including the PET plastic. They were moulded into hearts, grass and Barrydale Red Fin Minnows – the birds of happiness. A PET waterfall runs throughout Life, Love and Happiness, reaching its end in the lush flower meadow on the bottom layer, representing the public park that lies behind Magpie Studio, where the Magpie Christmas Tree is lit every festive season.

As an endangered fish species uniquely found in the local river and stream systems for thousands of years, the Barrydale Red Fin Minnow’s perseveration is a central theme in the totem. ‘Ours is a multi-level story of totemising the concerns around our pollution and our disrespect for the river in our town, which is home to these fish that are dying out because of us humans. Our totem conveys concepts around love, life and the potential there is for happiness,’ explains Shane Petzer, totem creator.

Paivepo by Master Wire And Bead Craft, inspired by Zimbabwe

Although bead-and-wire artist Bishop Tarambawamwe has lived in Cape Town for 18 years, Rusape in Zimbabwe, where he grew up, is still considered home. The town lies along the main road between Harare and Mutare, the provincial capital of Manicaland, the same province in which Rusape is located.

Working with pliable wire and a variety of beads in a myriad of colours, Master Wire and Bead Craft turns simple materials into intricate, considered forms. Creating products from wire is something Bishop says almost all the men he encounters from Zimbabwe were raised ‘knowing’. ‘It’s just part and parcel of Zimbabwe culture in a way,’ he says, jokingly comparing it to people who are born to be soccer players. ‘But we’ve refined the craft as artists,’ he says of his company’s trademark high-end style. Paivepois a symbol of Zimbabwean heritage. 

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