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Saturday, January 23, 2010


First comprehensive pictorial record of this craft form makes for fascinating reading. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Jannie van Heerden is Deputy Chief Education Specialist in the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education in charge of Visual Arts and Design education in KZN, and has spent 16 years documenting basket weavers in the field. He has placed his considerable experience and knowledge in a well-presented soft cover book titled Zulu Basketry which is hailed is the first comprehensive pictorial record of a craft form that has endured political change in education and empowered basket weavers with a sustainable means of making a living.

Zulu Basketry focuses on contemporary basket weaving from the Hlabisa area of KZN where some of the best work is produced. Master weavers from this area – like Beauty Ngxongo and the late Reuben Ndwandwe – are represented in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and in private collections worldwide.

The cover of the book contains a splendid large bowl-shaped basket (ukhamba) by Ntombi Mhlongo. As the front flap indicates, crafts have played an important role in the cultural survival of the Zulu people and basketry remained in the school curriculum during the apartheid years as it was not seen as a threat. Basket weavers and other craftspeople empowered themselves as they established their independence of unscrupulous dealers, eventually becoming entrepreneurs in their own right and earning a sustainable living.

Many years ago, I remember browsing around the now sadly-defunct Bayside Gallery at the BAT Centre one day when a large group of people arrived and began discussing and handling the baskets, fascinated by the various patterns and complexities. Picking up a number of international accents, I asked the shop owner, Sue Greenberg (who now runs the Artisan Gallery in Florida Road), where the group was from and why their specific focus on the baskets. She explained that they mathematicians who were researching how rural and mainly-uneducated people were able to produce such intricate designs without working from patterns. Such complicated designs produced presumably by instinct and skill alone, virtually defy explanation.

One look at the early baskets featured in Zulu Basketry, such as Bettina Mlotshwa’s large necked pear-shaped ilala basket (isichumo) circa the early 1980’s makes one understand what fired the interest of those mathematicians.

As the years progressed, basket patterns became incredibly more intricate and, before long, involved more complex images such as people, huts, trees and animals. Then telephone wire baskets hit the craft scene, pioneered by the inimitable Elliot Mkhize who used to while away his time as a night watchman at Delta Security and later the Natal Playhouse, working on covered sticks before progressing to finely woven flat bowls with complex geometric designs.

Basketware – whether made from ilala palm or telephone wire – is now highly sought after and can reach impressive prices on the international scene. Jannie van Heerden can be proud that his energies formed a considerable part of its success.

The book contains 98 pages with full colour photography and the author takes great pains to explain works in detail, pointing out the dyes used and their origins as well as interesting information on the patterns involved. There is also a very helpful glossary explaining the Zulu terms used in the making of baskets.

Zulu Basketry by Jannie van Heerden is published by Print Matters. RRP: R195 (incl. VAT and postage) within South Africa and can be ordered from all good bookstores and from 021 789 0155 or fax 086 616 4932. ISBN: 978-0-9802609-4-6 More information from and – Caroline Smart