Visual artist Bulumko Mbete taking control over colonial material by turning fabric into beautiful pieces of works

I’ve known rivers A Solo Exhibition by the 2023 Cassirer Welz Award recipient, Bulumko Mbete 22 July – 11 August 2023

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

The weather on Saturday July 22 was mean, almost like an aggrieved person out to spoil fun for those that have made them angry. It did not help matters that I went there one hour early, having mixed up the opening time. However this did not stop some of us to flock to The Bag Factory in Newtown to view and admire the works of Bulumko Mbete, whose solo exhibition I’ve known rivers as part of the Welz Cassirer Award that she won this year, putting her career on the spotlight opened.

Those who expect to see works in the stytle of her earlier works will be disappointed, in a good way though. The artist a BFA holder from Michaelis, University of Cape Town, , is expanding her art practice and in this exhibition she is experimenting with new ways of creating art, using new material, and the results are just stunning. The wine and the works on display, even made us forget the chilly weather.

I had a few minutes to chat to the artist during the exhibition opening, in her studio that came with the award, and in which she has been working for the past three months creating these stunning works in fabric, sponsored by leading art auction house Strauss &Co, in collaboration with the Bag Factory.

I wanted to know the meaning of her work, after a friend upon hearing that I was attending this exhibition had remarked that she loved her work, but would embrace it more If she understood the meaning behind these stunning pieces of work on display.

“I use material, whose origin is the colonial period, having now been adapted by our people as their own. Through working in these materials I want to send the message that I have taken power over them from their colonial origin. In fact our people for years have been using fabric to create works that they gave to each other as a gesture of love in the absence of expressing such love vocally. That is the way our people have been socialised, not expressing love in words but deeds,” Mbete explained.

She also explained that the change in her art practice was a way of experimenting, expanding her art practice. And looking at these works on display, that experimentation has worked perfectly well. Many a visitor to the opening of the exhibition was enthralled. Even stunned by these works that in reality are abstract objects, with the material having been elevated from ordinary pieces of fabric into objects of value through the hands and mind of Mbete. She clearly is an artist to watch out for in the very near future. And her artistic endeavour is being noticed and recognised, not only in South Africa, but overseas as well.

Next month, Mbete is flying to the US to pursue her MFA there under a scholarship. “I wanted a new environment to learn new things in a different place, but for the three years that I will be there, I will stay connected to South Africa but at the same time having an open mind about learning new things in a different environment,” she told CITYLIFE/ARTS.

Mbete, born in 1995, is a Joburg based artist and creative practitioner with multicultural heritage. Mbete completed her BFA at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. She undertakes research in different forms of craft/design making. These methodologies are predominantly performed by women in Southern Africa. Bulumko’s interest in materiality – through using textile, beading, natural dyeing and weaving – creates a framework to communicate generational traditions and gestures of love. Mbete’s interests expand into ways of engaging with the archive and using the archive for creative storytelling. In this pursuit, she uses archival matter such as photographs, textiles and clothes. She explores the geographic connections and synchronicities within her family in relation to South African history, and its effect on migration, labour, farming and love.

“The Bag Factory is delighted to announce the opening of 2023 Cassirer Welz Award Recipient, Bulumko Mbete’s solo exhibition, entitled: I’ve known rivers.In the past three months of her residency at the Bag Factory, Mbete has explored new ways of working with textiles through researching and trialling different techniques. In this exhibition, the artist establishes an expanding visual language as she makes a departure from her iconic blanket and bead soft sculptures, by presenting new experiments comprised of installation, wood, and textile-based artworks. Although aesthetically distinct from her previous oeuvre, the marrow of the thematics explored within her artistic practice are present and expanded upon in this exhibition,” curatorial statement from The Bag Factory reads.

In her artist statement Mbete writes: “My project endeavours to document and archive the anecdotes of “ordinary people” and their encounters with South Africa's rich and poignant history. I am reflecting on the intersection of issues such as labour, migration, economy, sustainability, ethical forms of creation, gender and feminism, social origin, and social use.

The title of the exhibition is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes entitled ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, celebrating and recognising the multitudinous of Black histories. Hughes references historically significant rivers as symbolic representations of the continuity of Black history. History remains a prevalent component in the Mbete’s presentation of I’ve known rivers. The artist unpacks its layers by her subject matter, materials and the processes used in creating artworks. This is done by exploring the psychogeography of her own familial history of migration, and her engagement with archive material such as family photographs and inherited clothing.

Through wooden sculptures, she maps out and reimagines her family’s journey of migration and discovers how it is situated within the broader context of South Africa’s history. In this exhibition, Mbete references historical methods of working with textiles, which have largely informed her experimentations during the residency period. She writes:

‘I use textile manipulation techniques, including weaving, sculpting, beading, and natural dyeing, to showcase women's labour and histories. This approach will draw on the influences of Southern African textile traditions and will aim to reflect contemporaryperspectives on South African history … in the creation of new textile works.’Mbete’s fascination with textile is centred around being able to turn a material into something functional or an object of admiration. ‘I have always been inclined [towards textiles], I’m interestedin abstractionism, not necessarily aesthetically, but in the [notion] that an idea can be contained  that isn’t figurative or a symbol in the conventional sense.’In I’ve known rivers, Mbete probes us to consider ‘challenging and reshaping our relationship withb culturally specific textile materials from Southern Africa.’

In I’ve known rivers, is currently on 22-July -11 August 2023 at Fordsburg Artists’ Studios (trading as Bag Factory Artists’ Studios) | 10 Mahlathini Street, Newtown, Johannesburg. Tel. 011 834 9181 | Email. |

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