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#Objects of Interest

On Isolation, Heirlooms and Solidarity

How the Sankara Rug became a comfort away from home.

On Isolation, Heirlooms and Solidarity

The lockdown was only meant to have lasted for 21 days. At the time, there were only 61 recorded positive coronavirus cases in South Africa. In announcing the national state of disaster on March 15, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the country would be under a curfew, and we would only be allowed to leave our homes to buy food or for medical reasons. Everything else would be closed including schools, restaurants, beaches and liquor stores.

In order to save lives, the best thing to do, was to self-isolate, if possible. By the time the pandemic hit, I had already been working from home. As the weeks followed, I found myself sitting on my gray, white and brown wool graphic rug in my small apartment in Cape Town, wondering if I had made the right decision to be alone instead of rejoining my family 1467 kilometers away in Pretoria.

At that time, I had been living in Cape Town for over a decade, and the city felt familiar. The 21 days of lockdown were extended by a few more weeks. The endless free hours that I now had were spent trying to avoid absorbing too much news and conspiracies on the internet. I focused my energy on trying to put a dent in the piles and piles of books I had bought over the years but never got a chance to read.

“Zoom call after Zoom call, I started thinking about the meaning of transnational solidarity, and the connections that helped to produce the object on which I was sitting.”

By the middle of July, winter had already crept in, with temperatures averaging 13ºC. The lockdown regulations were now divided into levels that ranged from 1 to 5, with 5 being the strictest and closest to what we had in March. There were now about 13,000 new coronavirus cases in total nationwide. Two of my friends had already died of the disease. I had not left my apartment in weeks. Everyone wanted to jump on a Zoom call for meetings, and also for drinks and catching up. It was all getting to be a bit much—spending hours behind a computer screen in a cold apartment. Finding a warm corner became a daily necessity. In the morning, with the light coming from the east, the warmest spot was always right next to my bed; by the afternoon, that spot became the living room. As the sun rose and fell throughout the sky, my dear wool rug became a companion in the search for a cozy spot to be.

The rug is the only real piece of art I own. I had bought it a few years earlier from South African textile design studio and collaborative platform The Ninevites, founded by Nkuli Mlangeni-Berg. Designed in South Africa and handcrafted by an artisan in Lima called Mario, the rug is woven from Peruvian sheep wool and colored using natural plant dyes. I had never spent much time on the rug before the pandemic, but Zoom call after Zoom call, I started thinking about the meaning of transnational solidarity, and the connections that helped to produce the object on which I was sitting. As I weaved, braided, and knotted these ideas in my head, the rug became a metaphor—a thread through which I was thinking.

On family heirlooms and Thomas Sankara

I was raised by Tswana and Zulu parents. On both sides of my family, heirlooms like blankets, jewelry, and crockery are passed down from generation to generation. The brown and black blanket my parents bought me as a newborn was given to my niece when she was born. But having lived away from my family for so long, I have had to come up with my own contemporary traditions and ways of feeling connected to my past.

The Sankara Rug became my own heirloom. I was also drawn to the fact that the rugs in the collection were named after Black leaders like Nomzamo Winnie Mandela, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, Kwameh Nkurumah, and Assata Shakur.

In a recent chat with Mlangeni-Berg, the designer said that the mission of her brand was to use culture to share the stories of some of the Black leaders who inspire positivity and greatness. The Sankara Rug is named after the late Burkina Faso president and communist, the revolutionary Thomas Sankara. He only spent four years as president before he was assassinated in a coup. During his presidency, which lasted from 1983 to 1987, he led initiatives for the vaccination of 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. He reduced the salaries of public servants, including his own, and sold off the government fleet of Mercedes Benz cars, replacing them with the cheapest car in the country at the time, a Renault 5.

Thomas Sankara wearing the Burkinabé garb (Image Source: Still from the documentary "Thomas Sankara the Upright Man")

Sankara also promoted campaigns against desertification, improved the national infrastructure by having had rails and roads built, and brought food sufficiency to the country. The arts were also close to his heart; he famously wrote the national anthem himself, as well as supported the country’s arts and crafts industry. A Pan-Africanist, Sankara believed in the power of self-determination. I knew all these things about Sankara, but only vaguely. It was only through the act of spending almost every day on a tiny rug named after him that I began to wonder what else he had done.

“The status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them.”—Thomas Sankara

I learned that, on March 8, 1987, on the occasion of International Women’s Rights Day, Thomas Sankara gave a famous speech. “The status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them,” he proclaimed from a lectern covered in traditional Burkinabè cloth. “[Women must] become more engaged in applying anti-imperialist slogans, to producing and consuming Burkinabè, always asserting themselves as leading economic agents—as producers as well as consumers of local products,” he continued, advocating the emancipation of women through work.

To boost local production of cotton, Thomas Sankara championed “Faso dan fani,” literally translated to “woven loincloth of the homeland.” The policy made the “pagne” cloth, traditionally woven by Burkinabé craftswomen, into a mandatory garb for every public servant to wear as duty. As a consequence, several weaving cooperatives were born across the country, some of which are still existing and running, like Pathé’O. Today, Burkina Faso is the second producer of cotton in the continent, after Mali.

African geometric prints and Global South solidarity

One of the things that the pandemic has brought into sharp focus is how interconnected everything is; how we are all more intertwined than we imagine. This rug, for example, weaves into it my desire for a kind of family heirloom designed for someone who lives alone. But the handmade labour behind it—the work of artisans in South Africa and Peru—is also a form of solidarity between workers on two different continents. To know that in some small way, one’s purchase is contributing to the livelihoods of people whose industry, in South Africa in particular, has almost been wiped out by the availability of cheap imports.

The decline in the textile industry is the result of trade rules negotiated at the World Trade Organisation in 2005. The new rules included ending quota systems that opened up the African continent to more competition from countries like China and India, where workers can produce more goods for less. This led to job losses across textile industries on the continent including Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritius, Tanzania and Kenya.

The geometric prints follow the patterns that a loom makes in the weaving process. (Image Source: The Ninevites)

But the rug is also a celebration of beauty and craft from the Global South. I appreciate beautiful design, especially if it gets me to think deeper about history. One of my favourite aesthetic aspects about the rugs is the geometric prints which were inspired by Zulu and Ndebele patterns. But they also follow the patterns that a loom makes in the weaving process.

“Most weaving looms are built to weave in lines and hence most textiles you see have geometric patterns. For example, Peruvian and Asian textiles have their own distinct styles of weaving as compared to West African weavers, even though they all use geometric patterns,” explained Mlangeni-Berg. In Southern Africa, geometric patterns are part of different cultures including Zulu, Ndebele and Sotho people. “I would say the Ndebele style is also different, for example, to how the Zulu beaders use it or how the Basotho women paint their homes. And my interest was how to evolve the design to give them a more minimalistic and modern look. And it was really exciting working with weavers from Peru, because for them it was also a new way of weaving than what they are used to,” said Mlangeni-Berg.

Ndebele women in front of a patterned house
The Ndebele people used to paint their homes as a means of communicating secret messages, particularly among the women. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Ndebele style of colorful geometric painting has been made popular through the works of artists like Esther Mahlangu. The 85-year-old Ndebele artist, who began painting at the age of 10, learned to paint murals from her mother and grandmother. Today she is known for her large-scale paintings which have adorned cars and planes, and now form part of museum collections around the world. The geometric patterns go back to the 18th century, when the Ndebele people used to paint their homes as a means of communicating secret messages, particularly among the women; and it has been passed down from generation to generation, as a heirloom.

Out of isolation and the future

I am now sitting in my parents’ home  in Pretoria, having not only made it through a lonely year, but also having come to the realisation that my loved ones will not be around forever. I have always known this, having lost family members before. But there is something about the type of grief that is brought on by the pandemic, where one is fully aware that should someone close to me pass on, I will not be able to attend their funeral, nor would they mine.

“Learning the importance of solidarity through the act of being alone with one of my most prized possessions—a rug—helped me appreciate the role of design as a storytelling mechanism.”

As more and more loved ones have died over the past few months, and the number of funerals we can’t attend increased—along with the hugs we cannot give, and mourning rituals we cannot do together; I knew I had to go back home. I wanted to spend as much time with my family as possible: listen to as many dad jokes as my dad can muster, laugh with my sister till we start crying, and try as much as possible to keep up with my niece and nephew. Learning the importance of solidarity through the act of being alone with one of my most prized possessions—a rug—helped me appreciate the role of design as a storytelling mechanism.

As the first few weeks of 2021 roll by, we are once more back under a hard lockdown: schools, restaurants, beaches and liqour stores. But at least this time I am home.

Neo Maditla (she/her) is a journalist, editor and content strategist working primarily in the arts and culture sector in South Africa. Neo has over a decade of media experience having worked across online, print and TV.

This text was produced as part of the Troublemakers Class of 2020 workshop.