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Curated by Fiona Kirkwood, South Africa.

“Skin - to - Skin” is a celebration of the diversity of work done by South African artists using textile-related concepts, techniques and materials.  The title “Skin - to - Skin” is a metaphor for the present day amalgamation of the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural groups that in the past under Apartheid were separated on the basis of the colour of their skin. In this exhibition the artistic fruits of a new unified South African society are represented by the textile-related works on show.


Skin pigmentation, and skin itself, have played a significant role - politically, socially and culturally - in South Africa.

Skin colour, identity and social status
For centuries in South Africa – after the arrival of the white settlers in the seventeenth century - peoples’ skin colour was used to define their social status, culture and ethnicity and to keep them apart. This reached its climax under the Apartheid regime when people were classified as “white”, “black”, “coloured” or “Indian” according to the colour of their skin. The result was that black and white people could not live in the same neighbourhoods, go to the same schools, eat in the same restaurants, do the same jobs, swim in the sea together, get married or even have sex. Literally, “skin - to - skin” relationships of the most intimate kind between people of different colours were outlawed.

In 1994 - when South Africa became a democracy under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela - Apartheid collapsed, and enforced discrimination against people on any unreasonable basis was outlawed. People are now free to associate with each other as intimately as they like without restriction. They may engage in “skin - to - skin” relationships of any kind.

Animal and reptile skins used as a medium
Traditionally for centuries in South Africa, skin – cow hide, goat skin, leopard skin, lion skin and snake skin - have been used by African people in their customs; their beliefs in ancestor worship; their ceremonies and rituals;  and as clothing.  Cow hide is used to sleep on, as mats, as blankets to bury the dead, worn as skirts by married women, made into drums and shields, and used by men as loincloths or “ibheshu” (the Zulu word). Goat skin and cow hide are used to make a connection to the ancestors. Snake skin is used in traditional African medicine.  These customs are more prevalent in the rural areas and some of them are less commonly practised today.

Marking and mutilation of human skin
Scarification of the face is practised by some tribes as a marker of identity of family members in some clans. Circumcision is still carried out by people such as the Xhosas who believe that to be recognised as a man it is necessary for a person to undergo this experience.

"Skin” and sexual relations
HIV/AIDS - which is of the highest prevalence in South Africa – is growing at an alarming rate in the country. This spread is exacerbated by the African traditional practice of sex “skin - to - skin” – that is without using a condom.



The main traditional textile crafts of the African people of South Africa are woven baskets and mats made by the Zulus, beaded aprons by the Ndebele, Zulu beaded costumes, beaded Xhosa and Sotho blankets, and the beaded cloths of the Shangaan people. European settlers introduced other textile techniques such as quilting, embroidery, tapestry weaving, felting, knitting and lace making.

There are no Fine Art institutions in South Africa offering a course in Fine Art Textiles. There has only been one Fine Art Textile Department opened at tertiary level in South Africa.  This was in 1985 at Durban University of Technology, Durban.  I initiated this and ran the department for 2 years until it was closed down due to lack of funds at the end of 1986. Despite this, there have been a number of textile art exhibitions in South Africa since the late 1970s, and textile works are to be found in many public art galleries, museums and public buildings. 

Today we have a number of successful, commercial, cooperatives where African women [and some men] embroider, bead and appliqué. Some very unique baskets are still being produced. There is also a group of dedicated and accomplished textile artists, mainly working within the Western norm and many with their roots in quilting.

Apart from this there are a smaller number of individual artists who are truly breaking new ground using textile materials, techniques or concepts and media related to textiles.

This collection - “Skin - to - Skin” - is a sign of contemporary South African developments in the field of Fine Art Textiles, which embraces our multi-ethnic cultures and reflects our unique history and society.

Curating this exhibition has involved ‘combing the country’ travelling around South Africa to the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg, various regions and townships near Durban and remote rural areas like Hlabisa which borders on Hluluwe Game Reserve in northern Kwa- Zulu Natal.  On route to Hlabisa near the road; we caught glimpses of giraffe, zebra, buffalo and buck, along with elephant’s droppings.  I have also visited public galleries, artist’s studios, private museums, experienced a ritual slaughter and skinning of a goat to communicate with the ancestors and written many letters to funders to support the costs of air freighting the work to Lithuania and back to South Africa.  It has been a fascinating journey of communicating with artists, who live and work in very sophisticated surroundings to others who live and work in a small one room house along with 2 children and have to collect water from an outdoor tap, have only a basic outside toilet and some of whom speak very little English.  My knowledge of African languages is very limited!  This is South Africa, a beautiful and varied country of strong and vibrant contrasts.  It came as a great surprise to me to discover that three of the artists, Lynda Ballen, Yda Walt and Leora Farber have their roots in Lithuania.  It feels like they are returning home in some way!

It is the first time that an exhibition of this nature, scale and calibre in the field of Textile Art by South African artists will be shown outside South Africa. The artists, all of whom are already recognized nationally and internationally, have been selected for their conceptual ability, their innovation and originality in the use of textile materials, their techniques, concepts and media related to textiles. The works embrace video, drawing, photography, installation, sculpture and wall pieces.

 The artists are Lynda Ballen, Tamlin Blake, Leora Farber, Karin Lijnes, Nkosinathi Khanyile, Fiona Kirkwood, Walter Oltmann, Langa Magwa, Jane Makhubele, Angeline Masuku and Yda Walt.



Lynda Ballen lives in Johannesburg – once the gold-mining capital of the world. Ballen has fabricated hand -made paper works that sometimes also served as supports to her drawings, paintings and prints.  Ballen’s works are generally characterized by linear qualities, repetition, weaving, and the interlacing of vertical, horizontal and diagonal grid structures.  In her work for this exhibition Ballen has continued with her theme of mining. She works with a systematic and methodically worked base structure, a lattice of woven stringing which becomes a network onto which paper pulp is placed. The matrix of woven strings remains an integral part of the work and its presence is stated by being visually emphasized on the edges of the work. It acts as a border for a formal, highly detailed and delicate drawing that echoes mining environmental structures, precious metals and the destruction of the environment in search of wealth.


Tamlin Blake lives in Riebeek West in the Western Cape.  Her works have varied from beaded stamps that reflect different periods in South African history, to intricately beaded family portraits and beaded fabric sculptures of domestic animals destined for human consumption. The themes of her animal works are linked to the religious and cultural life of African people. Besides being used for food, farm animals are still used in customs such as lobola (bride price), animal sacrifices to the ancestors and community festivals. They also represent wealth and status in African communities. For this exhibition Tamlin has made beaded work based on Zulu pregnancy aprons. The aprons were worn by pregnant Zulu women to ward off evil spirits and to request the protection of the ancestors for their unborn children. The aprons were originally made of antelope skins and then later goat skins. Blake’s aprons consist of beaded skins in the shape of babies that are branded with the hopes and aspirations of contemporary women for their children.


Leora Farber lives in Johannesburg. Farber’s previous works have dealt with representations of the female body in the context of contemporary Western culture. Many of her themes deal with aspects of control over women’s lives by media representations thereof. Using wax, she has transformed the surfaces of garments associated with feminine stereotypes into tactile skin-like constructions, as a metaphor for the skin as a garment tailored by medical and beauty aids to re-fashion the flesh of women to idealized proportions. For this exhibition Farber has produced photographs and a video performance in which she compares her own post-colonial search for identity with that of Bertha Guttmann, a Victorian Jewess immigrant who tried to preserve her Anglicized cultural identity. Farber uses her own body as a metonym for Bertha Guttmann and herself.  In the photographs and video performance Farber transforms herself from a white Victorian settler to a post-colonial African by 'grafting' indigenous aloe leaves onto her own 'skin' and body.


Nkosinathi Khanyile lives in Umlazi near Durban. He comes from a family of sangomas (traditional Zulu diviners and healers) and is himself one. He is known for his installations that employ combinations of beads, grass, terracotta and recycled paper as well as his totemic columns made of woven ilala palm. Khanyile incorporates ancient signs, symbols and words used to connect to the spirit world of the ancestors in his works.  He experiences direct communication with the ancestors that enables him to bring special insights and intuition to his installations.  Many of his works are inspired by dreams – the medium through which the ancestors communicate. For this exhibition Khanyile has created a work which reflects his ‘calling’ as a diviner by symbolizing the entrance to a traditional Zulu hut and a mountain top where the ancestral spirits reside. The installation also acknowledges the respect of the ancestors for the spiritual powers of animals and the spirit of ‘ubuntu’ (the interconnectedness of humanity) in Zulu culture.


Fiona Kirkwood lives in Durban. Her sculptural and installation works are marked by her ongoing theme of ‘protection’ - whether it be of the environment, society or individual human beings. Her works have been described as ‘powerful and moving statements.’  Spiritual themes have migrated through her work.  She has been very influenced by her life in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, with the fusion of Indian, Zulu and European cultures.  Kirkwood has been recognized as a pioneer in the field of contemporary textile art in South Africa.  Since 1998, Kirkwood has been trying to raise awareness around the pandemic of HIV/AIDS which has the highest rate in the world amongst the people of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Her works have been characterized by her experimental use of fibre and mixed media, which has ranged from indigenous palm leaves to plastic waste.  Kirkwood’s installation in this exhibition is a conceptual mixture of images, technology and an artist activist’s ‘search to ease the burden’ of HIV/AIDS using the theme of the washing line.


Karin Lijnes lives in Noordhoek in the Western Cape. She explores visual and material connections in relation to the impact of consumer culture on the social fabric and the individual as well as absurd ambiguities arising from life in South Africa. For example, the mass-produced versus the handmade, the disposable versus the durable. Lijnes sees the plastic bag as a metaphor for mass produced objects in consumer culture that are discarded when no longer needed. Using this theme she sews beads into plastic bags in order to create connections and dialogue between the individual, hand-worked images of her beadwork and the mass produced bags. For this exhibition, Lijnes focuses on beaded and embroidered portraits of two homeless women on fabric, as well as portraits, of two different angles, of a tribal woman on plastic bags. The tribal woman represents a period of traditional society when there were no discarded homeless people. Ironically, the discarded mass-produced bags are subsequently retrieved by the homeless and used to house their worldly goods.


Langa Magwa’s parents are from three different tribal clans – Swazi, Zulu and Xhosa. Although he lives in Durban, Magwa is a sculptor who grew up in the Eastern Cape amongst the Xhosa. The scarification markings (izingcabo) on his face form an important part of his African identity. These scars led him to widely research the meanings behind this customary practice and in turn provided the impetus for further exploration of the theme of scarification and identity in his own work.  Magwa burns out and scratches onto the surface of goatskins and cow hides, self-portraits and other images relating to his cultural identity and   experience of scarification and circumcision.   He chooses to work on the skins of animals that are revered in traditional African culture, cows and goats (often sacrificed in traditional practice to make the connection to the ancestors.) He also produces sculptural works using animal skins, with which he sometimes weaves, as well as wood and imizi grass. In this exhibition Magwa again works with scarification and its relationship to the circumcision rites of the Xhosa.


Jane Makhubele lives in Limpopo. Jane was taught by her mother to make traditional Tsonga pieces, such as Ncekas (beaded or embroidered cloths worn by women by tying the cloths at the shoulder). She works in collaboration with her husband Billy Makhubele who conceptualises the art works and sketches the themes.  He is also respected as a collector of rare beaded artworks and items of clothing of the Ndebele and the Shangaan.  Once designed, Jane Makhubele then executes the artworks in beads. She uses the basic traditional Tsonga cloths and creates contemporary artworks that depict the changing socio-political situation in South Africa, with particular reference to the role of ex-President Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. Along with colourful beads she uses the small gold safety pins that are also traditionally used in Ncekas. The work on this exhibition is based on episodes in Nelson Mandela’s life as symbolized by his well-known Madiba shirts.


Angeline Masuku lives in Hlabisa in rural KwaZulu-Natal.  Her mother made traditional sleeping mats, and her aunt, Kwawulina Gwcensa, taught her to make baskets. In 1984 Masuku began creating her own designs. She also taught her sister Nomusa, to make baskets. She makes her baskets from natural materials - indigenous ilala palm leaves and dyes which she makes from plants.   Masuku’s baskets incorporate stylised images of themes of rural life in KwaZulu-Natal that include people, livestock, poultry, Zulu huts and other aspects of Zulu culture. She does not sketch the images but works directly from her imagination. Masuku’s figurative approach to design in her baskets makes her a pioneer in the field of basketry in South Africa. For this exhibition Masuku’s basket captures images of life in a Zulu village.


Walter Oltmann lives in Johannesburg, but grew up in Nongoma the Zulu King’s capital in KwaZulu-Natal. He has been making wire sculptures since his student days. He works with copper, brass, aluminum wire and other industrial metal products. Drawings often accompany his sculptures. Working with wire and linear techniques, Oltmann has taken what is often regarded as ‘women’s work’ to a new dimension when using techniques such as knitting, lacework and tapestry weaving. He has created larger than life, sometimes monstrous, insects, as well as insect larvae suits of armour reminiscent of that worn by the Conquistadors. Oltmann has researched the decorative use of wirework by African artists in Southern Africa and this has influenced his work. For this exhibition he has created a delicate, lace-like, wire wall-work of the skeletal figure of a pregnant women dying from AIDS. The figure, which includes an unborn foetus in the womb, has the appearance of a hospital X-ray.


Yda Walt lives in Johannesburg. She works on blankets similar to those worn by young Xhosa men during initiation and circumcision ceremonies. Like the Xhosas she sews buttons as a decorative element onto the blankets. Walt enjoys using popular South African brand names out of context, which she prints onto brightly coloured felt and layers and stitches onto blankets. She employs the techniques of linocutting and silkscreen printing to convey graphic images of African women who are often the most oppressed and marginalised in African society.  Her works often depict African women carrying babies on their backs or balancing objects on their heads just as she observes them in downtown Johannesburg. In this work Walt is again inspired by the women, street signage, fruits and vegetables, in the pavement stalls of street hawkers, who are often owned by illegal immigrants and the vibrant colours, she experiences in the bustling and crowded street markets and old shops of downtown Johannesburg.