Is what’s produced for commerce with outsiders inauthentic? That’s one way to describe the fundamental intuition that makes Westerners look for African art produced by Africans for religious ritual and traditional dance – and to draw back from what’s made for trade.
There is, undoubtedly, work done for trade that has little intrinsic meaning and value. We buy it all the time, in fast food and fast merchandise. But the basic idea that commerce and meaning are opposed is obviously false: artists have to eat, and many of them profoundly desire commerce in the sense that they want to speak to their fellow men and women.
This basic opposition is certainly false some of the time in Africa. You can see this in the account by Brenda Schmahmann in “Stitched-up Women, Pinned-down Men: Gender Politics in Weya and Mapula Needlework, Zimbabwe and South Africa.” (This article is chapter 5 in Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster, eds., African Art and Agency in the Workshop (2013) – which those of you who’ve seen my recent posts will know I’ve been reading along in.) Schmahmann describes the history and the products of two projects in which African women, with the assistance of outside professionals, used sewing skills to produce things of beauty and to earn income.
I’ll focus most on the embroidered cloth created by South African women near Pretoria, in a project called the Mapula Embroidery Project. Initiated, it seems, by the Pretoria Council of Churches, and catalyzed by a member of the UNISA (University of South Africa) art and fine art department and colleagues of hers, this project was seeded in the black community of Winterveld and took root there. It took root only with difficulty: local group leaders’ deaths and disappointed hopes undercut it but it survived. You can see some examples of the Mapula work – which strikes me as beautiful and stylistically innocent at the same time – here. (And for examples of the Zimbabwean Weya project’s appliqués, see this link.)
But the work turns out to be deeply political. As Brenda Schmahmann explains, the women embroiderers respond to the tremendous sexual oppression of their lives by creating images of a just world. The Weya appliqué makers are sometimes blunter, but they too tended to the portrayal of the world they wished for. (The Weya project as such ended when funding ran out, though Schmhmann reports that "works in a Weya style continue to be made" (131).)
Thus an artist named Thandi Sondlo creates a piece called “Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel,” in which Machel says to Mandela, “I like your shirt” and Mandela responds, “And me too I like your dress” – while a child sits between them and below them is an image of “Mr Mbeki [South Africa’s second president] developing the world.” Schmahmann says, “In her representation of Mandela and Machel, Sondlo remedies the lack of reciprocal affirmation that usually characterizes relationships between men and women in her community.” (Text accompanying plate 5 in the book.) It's noteworthy also that Sondlo did not invent the dialogue she presents; rather, she borrowed it and transmuted it from a South African joke in which the first speaker was not Graça Machel but rather Archbishop Desmond Tutu (141). This work is clever as well as moving.