Filaments of liberty

"I am an artist. I paint and embroider to express myself," says Amita Makan, whose latest solo exhibition Nomalungelo: Threads to Freedom is showing at the Old Fort, Constitutional Hill, in Johannesburg.

The exhibition, curated by Brenton Maart, is a series of eight embroidered portraits including works from Loose Ends: A Story About My Mother (2009) and My Black President (2014), inspired by photographs of the artist's deceased mother, musical icons Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuku and Brenda Fassie, and the artist herself.

The 46-year-old Port Elizabeth-born Makan, who has an MA degree from Rhodes University, has had her work exhibited in solo and group exhibitions locally and abroad. Her work is also held in the collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Unisa, the University of Pretoria, the Edoardo Villa Museum, the South African Reserve Bank and the Chowmahallah Palace art collection in India.

She began weaving together a portrait of her mother in 2008 in an attempt to painstakingly piece together "stitch by stitch" a work that would preserve the memory of the woman who had been living with Alzheimer's disease for 12 years.

The resulting portrait is Loose Ends: A Story About My Mother and it is this initial portrait that was the catalyst that prompted her on a journey that would later become Nomalungelo: Threads to Freedom.

Makan's love for embroidery is an exploration of her ancestry, using the same stitch as her great-grandparents, cobblers by tradition, would have used in making shoes.

"The embroidery thread has two strands and it looks like the double helix of DNA," she says. "The one strand is linked to my ancestry and the other to my individuality. I am able to work concurrently with my history and memory and combine it to tell South African stories."

Miriam Makeba
After her mother's death, Makan was inspired by the biography The Miriam Makeba Story: Miriam Makeba in Conversation with Nomsa Mwamuka. Deeply moved by Makeba's struggle and the photographs in the book, the singer awakened her from her grief and inspired her to start creating again.

Nomalungelo (2013) is a silhouette of Makeba adapted from an iconic photograph taken by Jürgen Schadeberg and made out of a sari that once belonged to Makan's mother. Song titles African Sunset, Remember Sophiatown, Choo Choo Train and many more can be seen woven into the work, which Makan describes as a homage to the diva and her unwavering fight for freedom.

Pata Pata 2014 is an embroidered silk organza representation of an image taken of Makeba and Dorothy Masuku in 1962 while they were in exile. As each woman had written a song titled Phatha Phatha and Pata Pata, the words and the textures used convey the connection between the two women as comrades. In some of the pieces Makeba is illuminated by Swarovski crystals – Makan's way of depicting her as a constellation suspended in time.

Fassie's allure and beauty, originally captured by photographer Sally Shorkend, inspired the portrait My Black President (2014) – the title of Fassie's once-banned song that she performed to celebrate former president Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990. Embroidered with silk thread on silk organza, Fassie's independence and courage, as well as her vulnerability and fragility, have been captured.

Makan says she is constantly exploring the universal law of the fragility and impermanence of life.

Maart describes Makan's work as exploring freedom in myriad ways, demonstrated by her exuberant use of materials. "The freedom to create links between, and place importance upon, domestic, cultural and political sectors is explored in the linking of women from various walks of life. The artist's freedom of expression and self-representation is a refreshing reminder of the importance of the right to free subjectivity, and to act upon that subjectivity: a cornerstone of political democracy that is often so missing from our day-to-day experiences."

Says Makan: "The concept of my personal freedom comes from a deep place … previous generations did not have the freedom I have now. I try to delve into the history of my country and to project the images of these women. This is homage to them."

Nomalungelo: Threads to Freedom is showing at the Old Fort, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, until April 4


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