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2023 Cassirer Welz Award winner, Bulumko Mbete, reshapes our relationship with textiles

By Creative Feel

2023 Cassirer Welz Award recipient, Bulumko Mbete, currently has a solo exhibition on at the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios titled I’ve known rivers. On Saturday, 5 August, the artist will host a walkabout from 12:00 to 13:00 at the studios in Newtown.

Bulumko Mbete 2023 Cassirer Welz Award winner exhibition
Bulumko Mbete, Hide III, 2023, 53.5 x 80 cm
Bulumko Mbete 2023 Cassirer Welz Award winner exhibition
Bulumko Mbete, Hide I, 2023, 94.5 x 77 cm

In the past three months of her residency at the Bag Factory, Mbete has explored new ways of working with textiles through researching and trialling different techniques. In this exhibition, the artist establishes an expanding visual language as she makes a departure from her iconic blanket and bead soft sculptures, by presenting new experiments comprised of installation and textile-based artworks. Although aesthetically distinct from her previous oeuvre, the marrow of the thematics explored within her artistic practice are present and expanded upon in this exhibition.

“My project endeavours to document and archive the anecdotes of ‘ordinary people’ and their encounters with South Africa’s rich and poignant history. I am reflecting on the intersection of issues such as labour, migration, economy, sustainability, ethical forms of creation, gender and feminism, social origin, and social use.”

Bulumko Mbete
Bulumko Mbete 2023 Cassirer Welz Award winner exhibition
Bulumko Mbete, Glenhaven, 2023, 104 x 84.5 cm

The title of the exhibition is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes entitled The Negro Speaks of Rivers, whichcelebrates and recognises the nature multitudinous of black histories. Hughes references historically significant rivers as symbolic representations of the continuity of black history.

History remains a prevalent component in Mbete’s presentation of I’ve known rivers. The artist unpacks its layers by her subject matter, materials and the processes used in creating artworks. This is done by exploring the psychogeography of her own familial history of migration, and her engagement with archive material such as family photographs and inherited clothing.

Through wooden sculptures, she maps out and reimagines her family’s journey of migration and discovers how it is situated within the broader context of South Africa’s history. In her current exhibition, Mbete references historical methods of working with textiles, which have largely informed her experimentations during the residency period.

“I use textile manipulation techniques, including weaving, sculpting, beading, and natural dyeing, to showcase women’s labour and histories. This approach will draw on the influences of Southern African textile traditions and will aim to reflect contemporary perspectives on South African history… in the creation of new textile works.”

Bulumko Mbete

Mbete’s fascination with textile is centred around being able to turn a material into something functional or an object of admiration. “I have always been inclined [towards textiles], I’m interested in abstractionism, not necessarily aesthetically, but in the [notion] that an idea can be contained within something that isn’t figurative or a symbol in the conventional sense.”

In I’ve known rivers, Mbete probes us to consider “challenging and reshaping our relationship with culturally specific textile materials from Southern Africa.”

I’ve known rivers runs at Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, 10 Mahlathini Street, Newtown, Johannesburg until 11 August 2023 with a walkabout on Saturday 5 August from 12:00 to 13:00. The Cassirer Welz Award has been made possible with the support of Strauss & Co. Fine Art Auctioneers and Business and Art South Africa. 

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