This article appeared in House and Leisure (December 2017)

FROM TAPESTRIES TO KNITTED INSTALLATIONS, A COMPELLING NEW EXHIBITION PIECES TOGETHER ART THAT CHALLENGES THE IDEA OF ‘WOMEN’S WORK’

Paper fills Ernestine White’s office in the antiquated building adjacent to the Cape Town museum where she curates contemporary art. ‘When I’m curating, this is how I conceptualise the process,’ she says, explaining the piles of paper all over her desk, the books on the shelf and the pages that take up most of the white walls.

At the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG), the walls of Ernestine’s office illustrate just how the show she’s working on might look weeks before its opening – from tapestries that tell stories, to intricate lacework that is small yet incredibly detailed.

The title Women’s Work – a phrase used particularly in the West to refer to tasks believed to be exclusively the domain of women – according to the curator, is a metaphor describing how artists challenge and reinterpret gendered spaces within a highly patriarchal society.

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‘There hasn’t been an exhibition like this at the National Gallery before,’ Ernestine says of the show, which over five months will bring together contemporary local visual artists and craft practitioners.

Utilising traditional handcraft techniques such as knitting, crocheting, embroidery, quilting and beadwork, the list of almost 20 artists will include the likes of Malawi-born Billie Zangewa, whose silk tapestries depict cityscapes and home life; performance and visual artist Athi-Patra Ruga, whose works traverse high art and fashion, and engage in topics such as gender, race and colonialism on the continent; and Cape Town artist Igshaan Adams, renowned for using his performance work and weaving to challenge issues around religion and sexual orientation, and their inherent tensions.

While debunking notions of stereotypically gendered work, the exhibition also sets out to tackle the conflict between craft and visual art, and the high value placed on art in comparison to craft. According to the curator, there’s a tendency to separate art and craft as if the two will never meet. But these contemporary artists are blurring the lines between the two.

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‘Traditionally the ideas around women’s work have included beadwork, pottery and weaving. So, for the show, I tried to make a concerted effort to focus only on the thread,’ says Ernestine.

For her, it’s the thread that brings the artworks together and unpacks a range of social and political topics. Despite the title of the exhibition, Ernestine says the show features a strong contingent of male artists and she has also looked to women’s collectives, such as the Keiskamma Art Project, a community art project in Hamburg, in the Eastern Cape, which was born out of the need to tackle unemployment and poverty in the area.

As contemporary works such as these speak to issues of the day – like Berlin-based artist Lerato Shadi, whose works address topics such as history and the politics of historical erasure, specifically of black females, or the Keiskamma Art Project, whose tapestries often depict everyday life within the community – Women’s Work will be presented alongside older works from the Iziko Social History collection.

‘In conversation with the contemporary works there will also be historical objects,’ says Ernestine. ‘There’s an object made by a slave in the 1700s – it’s a small piece of lace. So we will be presenting that in conversation with an artist like Pierre Fouché.’ Pierre, a contemporary visual artist, is known for his finely crafted portraitures, which he creates using lace, a 500-year-old tradition.

The show will also feature a 17th-century Western tapestry from the Groote Schuur Estates, which depicts the continent of Africa in very exaggerated and idealised ways, says the curator. ‘Imagine pairing that alongside an Athi-Patra Ruga work?’ she says, citing works by Ruga, such as The Future White Women of Azania, which includes a series of captivating tapestries.

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As the show digs into the archives, it also presents commissioned works by the likes of Liza Grobler, who will be creating a site-specific installation, and Cape Townbased artist Zola Ndimande. Performance pieces by Mark Rautenbach, Pierre Fouché and Liza Grobler will also form part of the exhibition.

The art presented engages with cultural practice and political and social issues, and also points to the laborious techniques that go into creating what will be shown at Women’s Work. ‘We’re at an age where there is digital technology and everything is fast paced. All visual art is a commitment of time, but there’s a different type of commitment that goes into these techniques.

To make a work like a Pierre Fouché can take anything up to a year for a very tiny piece. Another example is Hendrik Stroebel’s embroidery, which is not very large, but if you see the level of detail and tonality, it is astounding.’

Women’s Work will be exhibited at the Iziko South African National Gallery from 1 December 2016 to 30 April 2017.