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Amazwi Abesifazane: Voices of Women

Art Exhibition - Amazwi Abesifazane: Voices of Women

By Sonia Nettnin

Memory clothes created by South African women are on display at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Betty Rymer Gallery.

The Durban-based organization Create Africa South created the Amazwi Abesifazane project, which contains over 150 art pieces of embroidery, beadwork and text recollections. The exhibition marks the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid; and the closing day of Chicago’s presentation is July 22nd, 2004.

The visual images and text vignettes capture experiences which either changed the women’s lives and/or impacted their perception of life.

“In 1994 a man came in the night and shot my 16-year old daughter,” one woman wrote underneath her memory cloth.

Through embroidery, beads and stitch work the women conveyed a meaningful event in their lives. They used different kinds of material and colors on self-made appliqués and created pictures which depicted life-changing moments.

For example, one woman shared the time a man raped her. She was 16 and on her way to school when he grabbed her and threw her into the bushes. As a result of the tragic abuse she survived, her painful memory is unforgettable.

Another memory cloth showed a woman with a pleated head wrap. It looked like origami, which gave her self-portrait a three-dimensional quality.

The written aspect of the exhibit gave the women an outlet for expression which celebrates South African culture.

“We enjoy our culture,” one woman expresses. “We show that by the colours that we usually use in our culture….people our proud of our culture. I am a Zulu.”

One woman expresses the character, strength and heroism of South African women. In her vignette entitled, “Portrait of a Zulu Woman,” she celebrates femininity and resilience:

“She has that inner beauty that only those close to her can see and appreciate. Those lips may not have a smile, but she has put smiles in many faces. She has acquired wisdom in all that she has witnessed through those bold beautiful eyes. Her family is always surrounded with her warmth, security and understanding. She is determined, full of life.”

Thus, their personal experiences articulate South African women’s unique, collective identity. Their narrations revise history – herstory documents the past from the woman’s perspective.

“What a life of unhappiness we lived in 1990, seeing children being shot and necklaced,” one woman explains. Through her creative work, she stitched people with bright colors. Through their hands and arms, she communicates the chaos people experience when other people discard societal law. In her memory cloth, a body oozes a pool of blood.

The women conveyed the many forms of violence with brutal honesty. In one text, “the man was busy shooting at people during the 1990 violence. One of them had fallen down and dead, and another was running away.” Depictions of men with AK47s are prevalent, along with burning tyres.

Hence, the creative works express the consequences of occupation for the occupied and the occupier. When social and economic conditions are grim, people resort to brutal tactics for power and control.

For example, one woman witnessed the police kill people in Lindelani. As people ran away with their children, the police shot them to the ground. Even when people were in their shacks, the police shot at them.

She explains “they (the police) had been brought in to stop the violence but instead were killing the people.” Children who survived the violence grew up with these memories. The youth’s experiences are a part of their development. “Up to this day our children, this is still ringing and fresh in our children’s minds.”

Another South African woman experienced violence when the police assaulted her neighbor’s home. The police entered the house, found some paint and destroyed the house with it. “They painted the cupboards, tables, TV, a fridge and the beds. In addition, they poured paint over the expensive carpet.” She said the incident appeared racially motivated since the police officers were white and Indian. Her narration shows that community experiences violence and it has a lasting impact on the collective consciousness.

These memories have lasting effects on the occupied people. One woman confesses: “Even today, I still have a loathsome feeling for white families for the inhuman treatment they inflicted on my family.”

As she expresses these feelings, perhaps it brings transformation for empowerment. The Amazwi Abesifazane project is about South African women’s experience with apartheid. It is a medium of expression that brings their voices to the forefront. People who see and read their work can experience their pain, suffering and continuing struggle creatively. The exhibit conveys the point of view invisible in mainstream media.

These women show that their strength created the means for existence during 350 years of slavery. South Africa cannot survive without them.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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