Could it be a coincidence that as Amanda Laird Cherry, high-priestess of the Afrochic fashion movement, has presented a retrospective of her fashion oeuvre at the Durban Art Museum, the Shweshwe print is winding its way into art? It was around the early noughties that our fixation for this print began. Where once these bold geometric patterns printed on hard cotton fabrics were the preserve of rural women, they had become a style statement on the SA Fashion Week ramps. It was a staple part of the Afrochic movement as they dubbed it then; a fashion trend that emerged on this platform after the fall of apartheid. It was a euphoric and seemingly uncomplicated time. Wearing a shweshwe garment, was a way of aligning yourself with the new Afrocentric outlook, despite the fact that the design had its origin in Europe and was largely printed by a Dutch company.
By the late noughties, shweshwe had become everyday and had lost its cultural significance as it was used for everything from placemats to oven-mitts. In more recent years, designers such as Anmari Honiball have sought to revive the print on the ramp, absorbing inserts into her collage-like brand of fashion design, however, it is artists who are bringing it back.
Siwa Mgoboza, a young Michaelis graduate, who recently enjoyed an exhibition at Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town, is one artist whose art is defined by these distinctive prints. He generates fabric collages with them or uses them in conjunction with photographs, where they function not only as a backdrop but act as camouflage for the androgynous subject appearing in them. Mgoboza was born in this country, but grew up elsewhere in the world, before returning here to further his art studies. The print allows him to connect with his roots yet he also plays with this idea of shweshwe as a shorthand for an imagined African identity that evades specifics. Ultimately, it provides a cloak underneath which his subject, often the artist himself, can escape or remodel his gender or identity. In this way Mgoboza returns to that euphoric space in the noughties where traditional boundaries around identity had fallen away. Of course, now he gets that it was false state, whereas dedicated followers of Afrochic believed these prints pinned down their position in the sociopolitical landscape.
Read More: published in The Times, 4 October, 2016