Shweshwe, the iconic textile that emerged as a product of contact and trade between Africa, Asia and Europe, underpins South African contemporary multidisciplinary artist Siwa Mgoboza’s solo exhibition, Once Upon a Time in Africadia. Here, shweshwe becomes a symbol of cultural exchange, a method of identity expression and a blueprint for the future.

Through photography, sculpture and textile experimentation, Mgoboza imagines Africadia as an alternative society that affords its citizens the possibility of transcending the racial, economic and gender-based divisions and prejudices that persist in South Africa, despite its political location as a democratic state. Difference and belonging are also themes that appear in Mgoboza’s work, expressed through the shweshwe textile, which is both ‘of’ South Africa and elsewhere, adopted and transformed through its use in traditional sub-Saharan African dress. This intersection is explored by the artist as a positive foreshadowing of the possibility of reconciliation between cultures – and an outlook that sees cultural identity as a hybrid formulation, rather than as original, singular and definitive.

One of the most interesting assertions in this exhibition is that textiles and design are important repositories of history. Shweshwe particularly displays an evolution – from a trade item in Asia and Europe to a ubiquitous and reinterpreted African material – and can also be seen as an excellent representation of reinterpretation in terms of design, historic narrative and cultural symbolism.

“Mgoboza has been acclaimed by Canadian audiences for his playfully powerful and dramatic engagement with identity, says Lara Morton, founder of Canada’s Matter Gallery, where Once Upon a Time in Africadia was on show this month. “His practice has been reviewed as dynamic and strikingly individual, while certain likenesses have been drawn to the work of British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Afro-American collage artist Romare Bearden and American fabric artist Nick Cave. His work has also brought to mind the predominantly Caribbean tradition of Junkanoo, in which fantastical beings are inhabited as a means of transcendence.”

Mgoboza’s work explores a transition (if a projected one) through the historically significant shweshwe cloth – from an uncomfortable present to a fantastically transformed future, contributing to the ongoing narrative of shweshwe. Although his vision of Africadia is not yet realised, he has provided through art and design a dream for which to aim.

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In many ways, isishweshwe represents a dialogue between Africa and Europe. How would you describe your role in and contribution to this dialogue?

My generation is very interested in finding representation where it is often isn’t, or where it has been excluded. My use of the fabric began as a mode of investigation into the self – we live in such a fast-paced world, in terms of trends, so it’s important to know where you stand, otherwise it is so easy to drift and become a follower. The fabric is used as a revision of the past and a reflection of the present and an imagination of the future. I am simply adding another narrative where there is generally only one.

In your opinion, what is the role of design in the world?

To shape the world, without design we would have very little or no taste…

Which artistic material/medium do you feel has the most unexplored potential?

Every medium has unexplored potential, it is just a matter of far you are interested in pushing it as an artist with the utmost integrity and authenticity… 

How do you describe your aesthetic?

All the color in the world. I used to spend too much time every day putting things together. It got to the point where I felt like I was misusing my energy for colour.

In your opinion, what are the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses and past and future of African design?

In terms of strength, we have always had the resources and the skills just never the platforms to showcase the work. As a result, I think this immediately put us off the map, but more and more attention is being gained and traditional techiniques are being merged with modern ones and setting a  standard for authentic design. In term of weaknesses, I would say we as Africans do not always support each others’ visions and always look towards the West for ‘better’ design, whereas our creativity and design is just as focused and in some cases even more advanced than what is currently being showcased in the West. The future of African design is completely in our hands to shape and mould. It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing it across the world, and not just labelled as ‘African’ design, but simply ‘design’.

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