A simple but very exquisite piece of art is showcased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This piece is a lidded basket from 1990, coming from the Zulu people of the KwaZulu-Natal region in South Africa. The basket has an oval shape, round at the sides and pinching at the top
and bottom while its diameter shrinks. At the top it is covered by a circular smaller lid. The basket displays earthy and natural colors ranging from white, green, brownish-red and black.
It feature a zig-zag pattern that stretches throughout the basket, interchanging the four colors.
The basket’s large size (13-4 by 21 in) and relative shape tells us that it was used for storing food and beer and it also suggests that it was modeled after isichumo prototypes because of its small opening and lid to secure the spillage of beer”. The artist of this piece is a woman named Beauty Nxgongo, who is nationally known for her weaving and is praised for making pieces for art’s sake instead of utilitarian purposes, like these baskets traditionally were made for’.
She makes these types of baskets by weaving grass and grass-like plants together.
In order to understand the origins of their artworks, one must first understand the origins of the people. The Zulu people makeup 22% of the 45 million population of South Africans estimated today. This artwork came from the region of KwaZulut-Natal where the largest rural cluster of Zulu people live.
Their economic system is based on harvesting crops and the raising of cattle.
The work of men and women is separated; while men raise cattle and clear the fields, woman plant, weed, and harvest the crops and in addition perform other household tasks. “During two periods of the agricultural cycle (the interval between harvesting and planting and time between weeding and reaping), Zulu women design elaborate and colorful beadwork items, make pottery, and weave baskets and mats”. Now that we have discovered the origins of the culture and people, we have come to an important turning point in the origins of the Zulu’s artwork. From here on, we can answer the questions, how were these baskets made, what material were needed, how those materials were prepared, and how were designs and decorations added to these works of art?
For the Zulu people, grass materials and grass-like plants were readily available, so they used all natural materials to create all their art works. To make their weaved baskets, they use z the leaves of the ilala palm tree which is formally known as the Hyphaene Coriacea”. This tree is very common in the KwaZulu-Natal region and almost all parts of it are used to contribute to the creation of something in the Zulu culture”. There are various techniques to making these woven baskets. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the description of the work of art titled “Lidded Basket” states several steps to creating this piece; Izichumo are created using the coil method. This technique utilizes a core composed of hardy grasses, which spirals out from the center of the base.
Narrow strips of the leaf blade of the ilala palm serve as binders wrapped around the foundational coil. The stitches are interlocked with the one just below it, and pulled tight to ensure a structurally sound basket. The ilala palms resist rotting when damp and swell when in contact with liquid, making the vessel quite watertight. An article on rural Kwazulu basketry suggests that there are two elements to making baskets. Both sewing or joining one set of elements are joined with the other and weaving or, intertwining two sets of elements with the technique of crossing over an under each other”. To start, weavers twist grass bundles into a spiral or they may choose to cross two elements at right angles to one another. By crossing the two elements, they create a checkerboard pattern.
Continuing, the artists develops a coil construction with over-and-over sewing of the material arranged in a spiral, which creates a strong hold”. Aside from the usefulness of the basket and the process of making it, the aesthetic aspectt of the basket is highly important. It is not only the quality of the sturdiness and tightness of the basket but the artistic appeal of it as well. Carol Brown describes in her article “Zulu Basketry” how the baskets are decorated. She states, “Decoration is usually incorporated, using grasses of different colour from natural dyes. These dyes come from a variety of sources and include the indigo fern (mauve), aloe leaves (yellow), or bark of the Umgwenya tree (pink)”
When analyzing this work of art made by the Zulu people we must look at all of its elements. Usefulness, aesthetic appeal, and how it was made are many of them. We must explore all these elements to truly understand the work of art.