The Durban African Art Centre
"Creating a basket from start to finish makes me feel whole."
“Creating a basket from start to finish makes me feel whole,” explains Zinhle Ngcobo a master weaver of the Durban African Art Centre.
Zinhle has been weaving telephone wire baskets for over 20 years. She is one of the master weavers of the Durban African Art Centre in South Africa. The Durban African Art Centre employs over 1000 Zulu weavers from the rural townships surrounding the urban center. Many of the women artists are the sole breadwinners for their families and are able to lead dignified lives through the sale of their art. The Durban African Art Centre is founded on the belief that folk art has the potential to promote healing, encourage positive thinking, and social change.
The Zulu people have long been associated with their skill and artistry in fashioning baskets from the native plants and grasses of their homeland, as well as for their intricate and culturally important beadwork. Zulu weavers have taken the designs and craftsmanship of the natural fiber baskets, incorporated the colors and patterns used in their beadwork, and have transformed them into brightly-colored baskets made from telephone wire.
The mesmerizing designs and vibrant colors are hallmarks of this functional art. The wire baskets are a modern innovation of the traditional Zulu fiber baskets—fusing together the past and the future. Zinhle, who began as a bead worker explains, “My roots in traditional beadwork inspire me to mix colors and play around with design motifs which make my baskets more appealing to our customers.” The coiling technique used in the telephone wire baskets is unique to the greater Durban area.
The idea to use telephone wire for baskets came from Zulu night watchmen in urban areas who, in order to pass the time, began weaving colored wire around their walking sticks. Master weaver Elliot Mkhize is credited as the innovator of wire basket weaving in the early 1970s. Elliot is Zinhle’s uncle and he taught her the art of wire weaving when she moved to KwaMashu in the 1990s. She learned to weave out of necessity because she could not find employment in the urban area. Zinhle, like most of the weavers in her group, has no formal education however through the sale of their baskets most of the women’s children are now attending school.
“By selling our baskets, we are able to pay for daily necessities such as food and clothing, as well as school fees, transportation, and medical supplies,” Zinhle explains. Basket weaving is an art form passed down through generations. Zinhle and her group encourage the young people in KwaMashu to learn the art of wire weaving in order to keep the tradition alive.