Angeline was born in 1967, destined to be a Zulu basket weaver. This was at a time when the revival of Zulu basket weaving as a craft, which had signs of dying out, was being resuscitated. This was brought about largely by the initiatives of individuals in African school education and by missionaries whose quest was to create livelihood opportunities for rural indigenous populations, as well as giving pride back to the people in showing deference to tradition.
Angeline started learning to weave when she was 8 years old in 1975, being taught by her aunt Kwawulina Gwcensa. This interest in weaving was to be supplemented by her exposure to Zulu craft traditions being taught, thanks to the efforts of J.W. Grossert of the Department of Education as part of the African school curriculum, in the early 1970's .
It is from these two sources that she learnt her craft of preparing IIlala palm in order to weave, how to source natural dyes from plants, trees and berries, as well as the tying of knots that had their own mathematical discipline. These were her formative years of acquiring the technical skills to enable the practice of an art form and setting the foundation for a basket weaving career.
The Vukani Association was founded in 1972 ( 5 years after Angelina's birth ) by Rev. Kjell Lofroth and Bertha Lofroth, missionaries from the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran church who came via the Rorke’s Drift Art School to Eshowe. His interest was in establishing the art of basket making that had all but disappeared by this time, except for very big grain baskets, chicken coops and very fine baskets used as beer pot lids. They travelled to various collection points where they would buy the local baskets, rejecting eventually all but the very best-made baskets. This led to a secondary industry in cheaper tourist-markets. In 1973 they received help from a designer from Sweden, Bodil Nyberg. Her influence and that of Rorke’s Drift tapestries can still be seen in much of the basket work today. The Vukani shop in Eshowe kept back many of the most interesting pieces which today reside in the Vukani Museum, part of the Eshowe Museum Village.
The Vukani basket Museum in Eshowe, which opened in 1993 was designed by Architect /Philanthropist Paul Mikula as a circular building. Baskets were masterfully displayed and exhibited, being held in space radiating off column supports. (see photo 1 ) This exposed the young Angeline in her mid 20's to a heightened awareness of basket shapes when being viewed at eye level, which was previously only viewed seated down on the ground. It further exposed her to a broad cross section of design imagery from across Zululand, which from a comparative point of view, was to liberate her as an artist to the potential of her chosen art form, being reinterpreted for display as something beautiful in contemporary interior space both here in Africa and abroad. It was in this period that Angeline’s 3 daughters were born, daughters who were to follow in their mother's footsteps in the further development of Zulu basketry.
Attendance at focused workshops in 2004/2005 provided a seminal opportunity for the accomplished 37 year old Angeline to with confidence start developing her own distinguishable Contemporary Zulu Basket style. She explored the interplay of patterns on both dark black backgrounds as well as the opposite gestalt imagery of bold pattern on a neutral Illala palm colour background. This renewed confidence and accomplishment culminated in her 2006 First National Bank (FNB) National Art submission, winning first place, which became the foundation for launching her National and International career.
Since then Angeline and her family have refocused her art of Zulu basket weaving as a livelihood initiative to the Hlabisa district in rural KwaZulu Natal, where private sector interests have created an opportunity for once just simple, affordable baskets bought locally, to move into an elite overseas market. Angeline often runs training programs as skill development for other women who want to use basket weaving as a way of supporting their families and growing businesses. Angeline has a small enterprise at home with up to 30 women who help her with large orders.
Angeline says that she hardly plans her designs; the pattern will come out of her head and through her hands into the basket. Angeline uses not only traditional patterns she has lived around her whole life, but also sources a lot of her innovative design motifs and patterns from looking around her. The traditional designs and patterns used on the baskets have deep symbolism. Diamond shapes symbolise femininity, triangles symbolise masculinity, and zig zag lines symbolise the squadrons of war. The Phansi museum in Durban has two of Angeline’s baskets one dating from 1998 and a more recent one from 2018.The earlier one speaks of more literal tribal imagery, whereas the latter shows a more sophisticated, experimental and abstract contemporary geometric development.
The order of the discipline implicit in the mastery of the weaving and colouring technique was there, affording her the licence to start knowing when to break the rules, as a Mannerist with juxtaposing imagery and images in woven dance.
There is playfulness in her rotating imagery chasing one another around the basket, while vertical zig zag step forms set up vertical rhythmic motions. Tighter woven baskets display design through reconfigured texture. These images are of the Master basket weaver at work creating a new contemporary African idiom.Over the past decade international Craft Fairs have been seeking Angelina’s attendance to exhibit and explain her craft. She has become a celebrity at these events, with her imagery and basket forms exploring added dimensions to fulfil the bespoke needs of an elite clientele.
This excerpt was from the article Pattern Master, Angeline Masuku: Zulu Basket Weaver, written by Peter Rich. Read the rest of the article in Issue 101 Grow.
Angeline Masuku is exhibiting in the Selvedge World Fair 2021, 31 August - 5 September 2021. Find out more about her here: Angeline Bonisiwe Masuku.