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Friday, 01 January 2021

South Africa's Artists, Craftspeople, History and Unique Culture

Written by Russ and Emily Firlik
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We arrived at O.R.Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and taxied to our hotel in the northern suburbs. Our quest was to observe, learn, and reflect on South African’s history, culture and unique arts and crafts, especially businesses owned and operated by women. Our slow travel adventure was not intended to take a safari tour; perhaps at another time. We arranged to have a guide for our entire Johannesburg stay. During the next few days, our guide happily took us to visit some of the best art galleries and markets of contemporary and tribal arts, crafts and artifacts from across the African continent. We observed, lingered and were inspired during these exploratory visits.


Our guide, Enzokuhle, meaning ‘Do Good’ in Zulu, introduced us to Joburg, (or Jodz) as it’s known, and acquainted us with this economic hub of southern Africa. Enzokulhe mentioned that the city has over 6 million trees! We experienced the quiet and leafy suburbs with interesting shopping malls. We visited the famous metropolis of Soweto, an acronym for South Western Township, including a reflective and inspiring visit to the former home of Nelson Mandela. Next to the revitalized Newtown Cultural Precinct and Constitutional Hill, home to the Constitutional Court – in a landmark building that was anything but a stereotypical courthouse. The building materials used to construct the building were timber, steel, glass and black slate. The interior was airy, and punctuated with slanted columns. We were told that the columns were a metaphor for trees under which African villagers traditionally resolved their legal disputes. The brightly colored artworks by many well-known South African artists were an integral part of the building. Nothing but spectacular!

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We spent a few days of leisure in the vibrant multicultural city of Johannesburg. We absorbed ourselves in observing the many cutting-edge contemporary art galleries, the art studios and the inspiring Apartheid Museum. The “city of gold” is the financial and industrial hub of South Africa, and South Africa’s largest city.

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Ensokuhle drove us for a couple of hours to the Winterveld region, just outside of Pretoria to meet the women from the highly successful Mapula embroidery project and we were impressed by their vibrant and colorful clothes. This project is completely run by women, no men involved. We continued to the Ndebele cultural village in Mpumalanga and observed the striking, geometric wall-paintings and beadwork of the Ndebele women, which they are famous for. We learned from Bethanie, about these unique art forms handed down from mother to daughter and gained an insight into Ndebele life and art. Bethanie spent two hours with us and was so gracious and kind in providing us with new information and a greater appreciation for the women’s crafts and business model.

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Our guide was back with us as we left the urban landscape behind us and traveled through the countryside to the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site. Here, a specialist guide introduced us to the fascinating ancient evidence of evolution and past cultures. We carefully observed the archaeological excavations and dolomite caves containing fossils dating back millions of years. Overwhelmed with history and culture, we were all hungry. Ensokuhle insisted on a drive through the Rhino and Lion Reserve, then to enjoy a lunch with panoramic views of the savannah bushveld. In the afternoon we returned back to Johannesburg and visited a number of workshops that were making and selling their age-old tradition of basket weaving.


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Last modified on Friday, 01 January 2021

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