The fabric in this piece is semi-transparent to allow multiple layers of identity and culture to be built up and digitally transferred. The colour is brought forward and illumined by an inner glow created from the filtering of the sunlight in the digital photograph itself. It has a mosaic quality and the illusion of depth. The images are obtained from close ups of flowers which were less about realism and more about capturing form and colour through light which is then digitally printed to the fabric and tessellated to create sublime cultural mirrors.
At the time of Empire, the Victorians considered themselves highly ‘cultured’ and ‘civilised’ with intricate symbols and social etiquettes to convey subtle social gestures such as floriology. Yet simultaneously, the Zulu social customs and courtship rituals were just as intricate and highly symbolic. Ironically though, they conveyed their courtship symbolism through beads, the same beads used by the coloniser to trade and often oppress. The Zulu people used beads from Egypt for centuries but the glass beads from the British were used to garner favour with the indigenous people of high social rank. Therefore at the same time that colonisers were trying to cultivate the land and ‘civilise’ the people, they were actually oblivious to some of the intricate social systems and symbols already in place. The Victoria and Albert Museum refers to these as ‘trade beads’ or ‘slave beads’ (V&A Museum.2018)xv which formed an important element in early trade networks between Europe and Africa. It seemed inevitable that these important symbols of courtship should be compared with the Victorian floriology as part of a multi-layering of identity and colonial connotations. The movements of flowers and beads are thus all purposefully interwoven.
Each floral symbol: rose, tulip and lily is presented in a circular frame, reminiscent of Victorian embroidery hoops and embroidery cotton is used to ‘frame’ the work in colour. The use of the circle frame has obvious divine and mythological connotations. Therefore the circle becomes a connection for the layering of cultural diversity or a hybrid identity. However the triangle also features in Zulu tradition and therefore the whole work is tied together in this shape also.
Within each of the three hoops of a floral image is a symbol of Zulu beadwork: boy, girl and married couple. The colours of the beads have a meaning which can be both negative and positive but are understood in the culture depending on how they are arranged or presented. Beading is an important part of traditional culture. Stitching and craft is about ritual, rhythm and pattern. It can be subversive and ambiguous as it speaks within patriarchal paradigms. Despite its obvious links to femininity and domesticity, it is also about creativity, pleasure and hidden semiotics. It is sensory because of the involvement of the artists’ hand and despite being relegated to ‘low art’ at one point, it actually involves problem solving. It reflects the social economic status of a woman but also the ability for these same women to control elements of communication and visual symbolism in their work.
This piece seemed to flow and the difficulty with the material and hand sewing was an important element in the idea of traditional craft. The knots tie together ‘identity’ and came as an idea while the work was on the floor. It had to be loose ties to signify transition whilst knots would imply frustration and this work is more about fluidity. The most difficult task though was the beading and special equipment like big eye, fine needles and a loom needed to be purchased in order for the final piece to look neat and not unfinished.