The Past is Present

As emerging SA designers increasingly turn to their heritage for inspiration gold, Phansi ubuntuART Museum in Durban is where X marks the spot on SA’s design treasure map. Brimming with significant cultural artefacts, never has a space such as this felt more important for the future of South African design.

Visiting the Phansi uBuntuART Museum

Text: Malibongwe Tyilo
Photographs: David Ross

When Paul started the museum in 2000 and invited me to be part of it, to share the stories with visitors, my own journey of delving deeper into our culture began. It was as though there was a voice inside of me that made me question… how and when we started to ignore our cultural heritage, and I just fell deeper in love with the collection,’ says Phumzile Nkosi, museum manager at Durban’s Phansi ubuntuART Museum. ‘I’m very proud to have this chance to share my experience and my knowledge with visitors.’

Puppet at The Phansi Museum, showing a ceremonial outfit with traditional beading.
Left: Remade grass outfit worn by young men in Namibia during the circumcision ritual. Right: Woven Hlabisa bench designed by Houtlander in collaboration with Thabisa Mjo and woven by Hlabisa’a master weavers.

Founded by architect Paul Mikula in 2000 and located in a 19th-century national monument home called Roberts House in Glenwood, the museum fills two floors and a basement with mostly South African artefacts spanning tribal beadwork, reed mats, woodwork, costumes, body art, clay vessels and pottery, most of it from Paul’s own collection built over 60 years. The museum’s name is derived from the Zulu word abaphansi, which directly translates to ‘the ones below’, in reference to ancestors long buried, but believed to be still involved in the daily lives of Zulu people, as guardians, as a connection to the spiritual world.

We visited the museum almost exactly a month after Clout hosted the inaugural Clout Designer’s Industry Days, a ‘pitch’ session supported by the Nando’s Design Programme at 100% Design South Africa 2019 in Joburg. What became very evident at these sessions was how many designers are looking to traditional motifs, cultural practices and vernacular architecture for inspiration. Of the four winning pitches that came out of those sessions, there were patterns inspired by the drumbeat of traditional Venda music, chair designs inspired by the traditional Zulu homestead, prints that told the story of life in the Lesotho mountains, and an entire furniture range inspired by Venda jewellery. And that’s just the winning ones – many more presentations out of the 26 pitches also looked within South Africa’s borders for inspiration, following a pattern we have watched grow over the past five years since launching the Nando’s Design Programme.

The Tutu 2.0 light by Thabisa Mjo was inspired by Xibelani skirts from Venda.

African inspired design is not a strictly South African or African affair – there has been a gradual increase globally in interest in African motifs. However, when it comes to South Africa, this goes beyond mere trends, ours being an actual African country with several indigenous cultures, many of whose aesthetic development has been complicated and at times hampered by the country’s political history, especially over the last two centuries. Many of the designers exploring African cultures also do so by looking to their own cultures, and like Phumzile Nkosi, they are going on their own journeys of research, with a personal interest in the preservation and development of those cultures and the crafts that they have developed.

Left: Beadwork detail at The Phansi Museum showing diamond motif ubiquitous to both Zulu and Xhosa beadwork.Top right: Thabisa Mjo’s Tutu 2.2 light icorporates beading into its design. Bottom right: Rug from the homeware collection by Laduma Ngxokolo for Maxhosa.

As they reach back to their memories, and research indigenous cultural aesthetic identity, the need for a kind of institutionalised memory, an archive as it were, is becoming increasingly apparent, making spaces like Phansi ubuntuArt Museum become even more important to the future of South African design. Here, the ingenuity and diversity of South African craft is revealed and transformed far beyond the curio, the pretty reminder of a bygone era, into a creative expression of functional items, with as much thought put into their aesthetic beauty and their symbolism, as to their end use.

‘These are pregnancy blankets, worn by young Zulu brides during their first pregnancy,’ explains Phumzile, pointing out a buck hide, decorated with a pattern of multi-colour beadwork. ‘After giving birth, one would undo all the decorative beadwork and use it as a baby blanket.’

The lifesize ‘marionette theatre’ at the Phansi featuring various South African traditional outfits.

On the first floor, there is the room dedicated to the costumes of various tribes, some regular daily clothing, some for specific cultural rituals. At the entrance to the room, a figure suspended from the ceiling wears a traditional Xhosa costume, with the accompanying beaded adornments. One can’t help but be reminded of Laduma Ngxokolo’s knitwear brand, MaXhosa. Laduma has always emphasised that the pattern designs on his knitwear were inspired by the shapes and colours of traditional Xhosa beadwork. Here at Phansi, one can clearly see the source of inspiration. And there are many, many more – untapped, waiting.

Left: Beadwork detail at The Phansi Museum. Right: Server by Sifiso Shange for The Clout Cafe at 100% Design.

The space is not all about romance however; no culture’s history in the world is an entirely rosy business. Phumzile points out a costume comprised of a beaded waistbelt and a skirt made of cowhide: ‘These were worn by women in Lesotho, when going through the female circumcision ritual,’ she says, referring to the practice of female genital mutilation, which still continues to this day in Lesotho, even as activists around the world rightfully fight for its eradication. Indeed, many of the costumes reflect the views of the time with regards to women’s place in society, and even give insight into the long history of both the positive and harmful perspectives on women that still endure in present day South Africa.

Perhaps most importantly, as designers look back, spaces like Phansi provide not only a space to view a history of ingenuity and aesthetic beauty, but a space to immerse themselves in the visual representation of cultures once interrupted, whose bonds with their descendants have been weakened, a space to contemplate their development, aesthetically and otherwise, into a contemporary society.

Telephone wire bowl at the Phansi Museum. Nenzima server by The Urbanative.

Sadly, two decades since its founding, the museum struggles for funding, there is no guarantee that they will make it to the next month. And as things stand, it is not clear where the collection would end up if they had to close their doors. To call such an eventuality ‘a pity’ would be of course an understatement of note; it would be not only a loss to the South African cultural archive, but yet another lost opportunity for the designers to strengthen those bonds between the past and the present, which are evidently necessary as they work to build a contemporary South African design aesthetic, anchored like many other successful design identities around the world, by the ingenuity and visual literacy that came before, from abaphansi.

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