Arriving at Madi a Thavha just outside Makhado, in the lushness of Limpopo’s mountains, lakes and forests, one is immediately taken by the traditional sculptures and artworks placed all over the grounds of this unique guest house and art centre.
Heading out from here one will encounter the mythologically potent Lake Fundudzi, ancient spiritually important forests and a belt of Venda woodcarvers celebrated the world over – Jackson Hlungwane, Noria Mabasa, Johannes Maswanganyi, Samson Mudzungu and others. This generation of spiritual sculptors turned the South African art world on its head. Work some regarded as craft was viewed by critics and historians as the fine art it is. The problem was that as the sculptors grew older, fewer and fewer learned their trade. Limpopo, meanwhile, began to grow as a tourist destination and the nearby administrative capital Thohoyandou began to bustle. Here is the perfect place, rich with heritage, to grow the existing craft market.
The National Arts Council (NAC) Craft Panel recognised this opportunity to develop skills in a culturally unique craft sector, grow employment in a geographically remote region, and facilitate entrepreneurs, artists and artisans gaining easier entry into the market.
This is where Madi a Thavha fitted perfectly into the plan. Through sustainable practice and a trusted bond with a network of local artists and handcrafters for a decade already, Madi a Thavha is also home to a gallery showcasing local masters and emerging artists working in and reinterpreting the traditional design patterns and art forms of the VhaVenda and VaTsonga people – notably through wood carving, beading and textile design.
A fair trade tourism destination, Madi a Thavha which means ‘water from the mountains’, was beginning to attract more and more foreign buyers and facilitate a meaningful exchange between the local and international art communities – one that is facilitating a broadening flow of business.
At the picturesque art centre, a craft workshop and craft store became new additions. Local women are employed at the Madi a Thavha textile and design studio, a business that produces homeware from Venda fabrics decorated with traditional Tsonga beading and embroidery. Visitors are also taken on guided tours of the studios and workshops of local crafters and sculptors.
The NAC chose Madi a Thavha as a flagship Craft Initiative Project, collaborating to align master crafters with talented handcrafters in training and development programmes.
The initiative culminated in CraftArt, an exhibition that showcased work from 48 of Northern Limpopo’s finest established and new artists and crafters. The NAC-funded exhibition’s theme centred on the traditional motifs and designs used to adorn local homesteads. It showcased local craft to a broader audience – from tourists and visitors to gallerists and interior decorators, government to museums.
But the process was even more important than the outcome.
Through the NAC Creativity in Craft Training programme, potential craft talent in the region was spotted and nurtured. Participants were encouraged to experiment with new processes, colour and texture combinations. This skills transfer and the dialogue between artists and crafters resulted in innovative new products and ranges – traditionally inspired contemporary jewellery pieces, beaded baskets, glass weaving artifacts and beaded-and-embroidered fabric and textiles. Handmade recycled glass beads, indigenous seeds from Marula and Baobab trees were also incorporated as new materials into some of the new ranges.
In the process, business skills were passed to the community, as well as a new knowledge of production processes and a focused consideration of sourcing and the use of raw materials.
For the project, various communities played host to workshops in market support, technical and product innovation. There were training and mentoring programmes across the Northern Limpopo region in Thohoyandou, Elim and Giyani. People living with disabilities and people living with HIV/Aids were also included.
In 2016, the promotion and the sustainable expansion of the market in this culturally rich region will continue. This NAC project aims at perfecting successful products from the previous year, while building proficiency and also sourcing alternate raw materials for new craft ranges. New life has been breathed into an ancient practice here, providing both jobs and the preservation of heritage.