Monday, May 25, 2015

Rorke's Drift - The Art Aspect

When I told people twelve years ago that I was moving to Rorke’s Drift I was met with blank stares, dropped jaws and incredulity. One person in particular derisively quipped back at me that “there is nothing at Rorke’s Drift..did you know?”. Luckily I can unequivocally state that she was so far from the truth as to be laughable, but I won’t berate her too much. What you find at Rorke’s Drift depends entirely on your level of curiosity and whether you have an enquiring mind and soul, or maybe not.
The work of Bhekisani Manyoni who was one of the printmakers who studied at The Rorke's Drift Art School
At the time of the Defense of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 the Swedish missionary Otto Witt was living in the house built by James Rorke in 1849. He vacated the building during the Anglo-Zulu conflict but returned once it was all over. In 1882 a sandstone church was erected on the site, a primary school was established and an old-age home. The Swedish mission also established a theological seminary to train Lutheran priests at Rorke’s Drift. It was not until the apartheid government was elected in 1948 that things would change dramatically at Rorke’s Drift. 

As a result of the area being declared a “white” area the Swedish Lutheran Missionary Church decided to relocate their seminary in the early 1960’s to Umpumulo (now known as Mapumulo) not too far from Stanger. At the same time Berta Hansson a visiting Swedish Art Teacher and Bishop Helge Fosseus of the Missionary Church of Sweden hatched an idea to start an Art and Craft Centre in Zululand. Fast forward through the all the little details and we meet Peder Gowenius who together with his wife Ulla, graduates of the Konstfackskolan in Stockholm, arrive in Rorke’s Drift in and around 1961. Their brief was to research the material culture of the area and consider the opportunities for marketing of arts and crafts among the local Zulu people with an emphasis on encouraging the women to produce work. 

Current work being produced by the potters at Rorke's Drift's ELC Art and Craft Centre.
After a trip around Zululand and then up to Johannesburg where they met Cecil Skotnes who taught at the Polly Street Centre they went back to Ceza Mission Hospital near Nongomo in 1962 and started teaching TB patients at the hospital how to weave, spin and sew as well as other art forms. They became critical of the government whom they felt were trying to keep the Zulu people from learning sophisticated art forms in preference to indigenous craft skills such as basket weaving. The thought of opening a school had its origins in a nurse Allinah Ndebele who was seconded as a translator for the Gowenius”. She had impressed them immensely with her ability to assist with their teaching and the Arts and Crafts Advisors Course was established to train therapists to help patients at other hospitals. They set up this course at the Seminary in Umpumulo. The students were expected to spend 50% of their time producing work for sale in order to help cover costs for their tuition.

Vases that come out of the Pottery Studio at the ELC Art and Craft Centre
In 1963 they made the move to Rorke’s Drift and with a lot of support from Sweden a weaving workshop was established. This was later expanded to a pottery and a printmaking studio. In the 1970’s the Centre not only produced beautiful carpets, pottery and prints it also saw the first black art students studying full time towards an art qualification all the while enduring raids by the police in an attempt to harass everyone living on the Swedish Mission Property. 

Some of South Africa’s most significant black artists studied at Rorke’s Drift. Amongst them are Azaria Mbatha, a printmaker of note, Sam Nhlengethwa, Thami Jali, John Muafangejo, Cyprian Shilakoe, Pat Mautloa and Bongi Dhlomo to name but a few. 

Then came the the devastating closure of the Art School in the early 1980’s but the weaving business thrived with carpets being sold to people all over the world. Both the pottery and printmaking studios continued production. Inevitably though without the on site guidance of the Swedish teachers the Centre went into decline in the 1990’s and almost ground completely to a halt.
Original work that tells a story from the ELC Art and Craft Centre
Some new life arrived in the person of Christiane Voith from Germany in mid 2000 and the Centre has now seen some new ideas and new life breathed into it. Much needed refurbishments have been done and the Centre has a production line going again. However, the sadness of time remains prevalent in the workshops as year by year crafters and artists age and retire and no one is there taking their place.
A carpet woven on the looms of the ELC Art and Craft Centre

The work executed by the Artists now at Rorke's Drift emerges as an art form born out of the history of the people. It is relevant in its place in the Art Landscape of South Africa and deserves pride of place in art collections around the world. The ELC Art and Craft Centre is just another place that visitors to the area can explore and enjoy. On the floors at Rorke’s Drift Lodge are some of the carpets that have come from the Rorke’s Drift Centre. We need to realise that unless we support this Centre of excellence, soon it will be no more and will only be found on the dusty shelves of libraries and archives.
Another carpet from the ELC Art and Craft Centre graces the floors of Rorke's Drift Lodge