Mapula Embroidery project celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021, a remarkable achievement

You strike a woman, you strike a rock

It is an understatement to say I am grateful to our investigative journos here in South Africa who have done such an extraordinary job in exposing so many of the shenanigans and shameless corruption and misuse of public funds. In the light of this and all the behind-the-scenes ‘verneukery’, both in government and the corporate world, it makes the tireless input of hardworking visionary women who work in creative community projects, even more admirable. Mapula Embroideries in the Winterveld 40km north-west of Pretoria, is one such community art project.  Much has been written about Mapula Embroideries: on their extensive website, in articles and exhibitions reviews, and of course by Brenda Schmahmann in her definitive book on Mapula. 

History of Mapula Embroideries     

Map showing the location of the Winterveld 1977-1994. Source: Brenda Schmahmann

The Winterveld is an area which, like many areas in South Africa, has a fraught and complex history much of which explains the material deprivation and lack of employment opportunities over the last 8 odd decades.  In the 1930s and ’40s around 1000 plots were sold to black landowners. But with the lack of water and general resources, by the 1970s landowners chose to become landlords to tenants, many of whom had been moved through the forced resettlement policy of the Apartheid government.  Social and economic insecurity was further exacerbated when, under its inclusion in the Bophuthatswana “homeland”, non-Tswanas were discriminated against, and even relocated … yet again. 

In 1991, in an effort to upgrade the living conditions and the economic opportunities for the people in the Winterveld, the Pretoria branch of the professional women’s organization – Soroptimist International, along with the Sisters of Mercy who ran the DWT Nthathe Adult  Education Centre, and some UNISA [University of South Africa] staff, collaborated with Emily Maluleka who was teaching embroidery at the Nthathe Education Centre.  

Cushion cover

The project, which now includes some 150 women, started with about 20 women who, under Emily’s guidance, embroidered small items like cushion covers and gradually developed to embroidering large cloths such as tablecloths and wall hangings. Works by Mapula now hang in museums in South Africa and abroad and they are written up in many national and international publications on textile art.  While much of the subject matter reflects the women’s personal experiences, the Mapula Embroidery Project has become well known for their depiction of topical events and social history.

September 2001 Terror Attack in America 

The women have made embroideries referring to disasters such as the floods in Mozambique in 2000; the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001; and the tsunami in Asia in 2004. 

Institutional Framework

Apart from the continued commitment of the embroiderers and the ongoing involvement of dedicated volunteers like Sally Currin (a Soroptimist and current Chair of Mapula Embroidery Trust) as well as Janétje van der Merwe (one of the founders and now retired from UNISA), it is the institutional framework, management structures and skills development strategies which have been set in place and account for the longevity of this project.

Three different groups of embroiderers reflect the communities who live in three different areas in the Winterveld and Hammanskraal. Each group has a coordinator  and these 3 coordinators along with 4 chosen members from the broader embroidery community make up the Mapula Production Board. Amongst them, two members are chosen to take active part in and are members of the Mapula Embroidery Trust (formed in 2016).  This involvement in the production, management and marketing process has trained women to take on leadership and management roles, and to acquire knowledge and business skills

Bertha Rengane, coordinator of group 3

Streams of productions

Currently there are 3 different streams of artistic production:

  • Smaller items like bags, cushion covers, table mats and aprons. These make ideal Christmas presents as well as gifts for anybody travelling to or from overseas 
  • Obama presented with a Mapula embroidered cloth © Valerie Hearder

    Story cloths which have become collectibles with global purchasers commissioning these works and Mapula cloths are spread amongst the rich and famous throughout the world: HRH Queen Elizabeth was presented with a Mapula cloth during her visit to South Africa in 1999; Mrs. Zanele Mbeki, wife of the past President of South Africa, purchased 65 Mapula cloths as gifts for the spouses of the Visiting Heads of States during the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002; President Obama was presented with a Mapula cloth at the White House in 2010.
  • Creative enterprises have started commissioning works from Mapula for interiors as well as for clothing and accessories.  A totem by Mapula embroiderers has been included on the Capetown V&A Waterfront’s 2021 Joy of Africa to the World campaign. 

The on-line marketing channel has become even more important since Covid 19 with travel and tourism lockdowns shut down so many of the sales outlets.   

Across the divide

Given the severe economic impact of pandemic Lockdowns  on the livelihoods of vulnerable communities, a collaborative project was initiated between Mapula Embroideries with another remarkable community project: The Keiskamma Art Project, Hamburg Eastern Cape.  The innovative concept of this initiative was that 8 pairs of women, each pair comprising a woman from Hamburg and a woman from the Winterveld. would get to know each other and their everyday lives using WhatsApp texts, images and videos. Women who lived more than 1000 km apart and who had never met each other and who came from very different environments, one on the river mouth at the sea and one in the Highveld, each produced an art work of their partner’s life, showing their everyday lived reality and concerns.   

Vero’s Life in Hamburg during Covid 19 by Rosina Maepa ©KeiskammaTrust 
Veronica Betani: Knowing you [Rosinah Maepe] thru embroidery ©KeiskammaTrust 

The two works by Rosina Maepa from Mapula Embroderies and Veronica Betani from Keiskamma Art Project were chosen in 2020 for an online exhibition Lessons from Lockdown at Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of the Arts, University of London.

Arising out of this collaborative project, all 16 women who had worked remotely during 2020 met up when the Mapula embroiderers travelled to Gqeberha and spent 2 days at the sea with Carol Hofmeyr at her house. They attended the exhibition Transformational Textiles at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum (which included their 16 works) and engaged with other well-known textile artists and their work. Another exciting collaborative artwork, combining the talents of Mapula Embroideries and Keiskamma Art Project women, is being planned and will begin to unfold in 2022.

Transformational Textiles at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum until May 2022

Ongoing sustainability 

Rosina Maepa, was one of the first members of the project. Her daughter Kelelo has been drawing and embroidering for the project since she was about 10.  When I met with Sally Currin to chat about the Mapula project, she made clear that the older generation of women in the project, rather than focusing on furthering their own formal education, are more interested in ensuring that their children and families get better opportunities and education. Kelelo, now 26, is but one example. Rosina’s embroidery work has helped fund Kelelo’s tertiary education and Kelelo has recently graduated from the University of Johannesburg with a diploma in Food and Beverage Operations.

For a list of outlets which stock Mapula embroideries, see their website.



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