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  • Dynamic Emergence from the Sea [detail], Ntombephi Ntombela. Photo courtesy of 50 Golborne

Ubuhle: the all-female collective empowering South African women through craft

by Sara Khan

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Black History Month here in the UK, we met with Pascale Revert Wheeler from 50 Golborne Gallery to discuss the innovative work of South African Ubhule Art Collective. This all female collective have gone against the grain to develop an enterprise that supports women to develop their skills and become financially independent.

What is Ubhule Art Collective?

Ubuhle first came together as an attempt to find specific solutions to issues faced by post-­Apartheid South African communities living in the rural region of KwaZulu-Natal.

During the Apartheid, laws were put in place to divide the people of South Africa by their race. This system denied the rights of many non-white people, and in particular black people who often had to carry special papers to live and work in areas designated for white communities. The government also separated mixed communities and forcibly moved many people to comply with the new system.

For nearly a century, men were displaced from rural places like KwaZulu-Natal and made to work in gold and diamonds mines or sugar cane plantations.  As a result, they were separated from their wives and families leaving behind them a breakdown of traditional values and rural family life. Increased levels of poverty and AIDS within the region also had a deadly impact on these families who often had to move around to find opportunities to work. 

Ubuhle was established in 1999 on a former sugar plantation at the end of Apartheid. Its purpose was to provide women with a source of income, and the route to financial independence using the traditional art form of beading.

Forest of my Dreams, Ntombephi Ntobela. Photo courtesy of 50 Golborne

Why is the work of the Collective important? 

Ubuhle means ‘beauty’ in the Xhosa and Zulu languages. It describes the shimmering quality of light on glass that for the Xhosa people has a particular spiritual significance.

Ubuhle’s mission is to give opportunities to build the skills of women to express their art whilst taking control of their lives and becoming financially independent. The art of beading is also very important in the Xhosa tradition where women traditionally used the practice to reach a spiritual state that would allow them to connect with their ancestors. 

Ntombephi Ntobela. Photo courtesy of 50 Golborne

Who is involved in the Collective?

The Ubuhle community exists because of the determination of two women: Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela and Bev Gibson who went against the grain and started an enterprise that is symbolic of changing times.

Ntombephi is a master beader from the Eastern Cape whose skills as an artist and teacher have formed the foundation block of the Collective’s work. She was given the title ‘Induna’ – a traditional title of great importance meaning leader of the community. Bev is a white South African and purchased a small farm where the Collective live, explore, and work.

The Collective is currently formed of six women who have helped to push and shape Ubuhle’s beadwork to be seen as a form of art. "By stretching this textile like a canvas," said Bev Gibson, and using the best quality of coloured Czech glass beads the artists have been able to “transform the flat cloth into a contemporary art form." 

Where can we see Ubuhle’s work?

Ubuhle will be showing as part of 50 Golborne’s stand at Collect on 22 -25 February 2018 at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

There will be eight beaded tableaux by four artists. The Collective often work on common themes that relates to local traditions and their daily lives such as their relationship with water. However each artist likes to express their own style and creativity.

The bigger panels that will be shown at Collect have taken as much as six months to make. Each piece demonstrates the technical precision of the Ubuhle artists. From a distance, each panel seems to be formed from a continuous surface, but as each tiny individual bead catches the light, the viewer becomes aware of the meticulous skill that went into each work and the scale of ambition.

Dynamic Emergence From the Sea, Ntombephi Ntobela. Photo courtesy of 50 Golborne

You mentioned a theme around water. Why did the artists choose this as a theme?

The theme of the water came out through the collaboration between 50 Golborne and the Collective. The lack of access to a clean water supply has been a major issue in South Africa and in particular in the South-Eastern region. Water is also a symbol connected to femininity in both Xhosa and Zulu cultures. For example, it is believed that a Sangoma (female healer) must devote herself in the bodies of water to harness her spiritual powers. 

We wanted to create works that symbolised these traditions as well as contemporary issues being faced by the Collective.

Can you tell us a little more about one of the works?

In Dynamic Emergence from the Sea, artist and Ubuhle co-founder Ntombephi Ntobela invokes water as a personal reference to her mother who had spent half a year in the sea to complete her training as a Sangoma healer. 

In this work, Ntombephi explores the feeling of getting back to the surface after having been immersed in the water. The light reflects off the surface of the glass beadwork giving the tableau a sense of fluidity whilst the curve of the motifs blending into each other provides an exhilarating sense of energy. This combination of light and movement expresses the moment when the apprentice female healer is emerging from her deep voyage into the spiritual world to be reborn as human.

You can see Ubhule Art Collective’s work at 50 Golborne’s stand along with 34 other galleries at Collect: The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects on 22 – 25 February at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Tickets start at £16.

Ripples of Thought, Thando Ntobela. Photo courtesy of 50 Golborne

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