Together for tomorrow


Artist Zyma Amien Celebrates the Art of Garment Workers

by | Mar 1, 2022

“Once I was in art school, I looked back and realised that I had been living in a home of artists my whole life,” says Zyma Amien, “we didn’t become artists – we always were artists.” Zyma was 46 years old when she went to art school to study a Bachelor of Visual Arts at the University of South Africa, followed by a Master’s in Fine Art at the University of Cape Town.

Her artistic practice spans multiple mediums including printmaking, drawing, installation and digital video, and is often rooted in the textile industry’s labour and socio-political issues, drawing on stories from Zyma’s upbringing.

Zyma grew up in a household of artisans – her mother and grandmother were both garment workers and her father was a carpenter. But, as a Coloured family living through the Apartheid years, life was about survival, not art. “At the time, art was something that white people did,” says Zyma, “As a Coloured child, there was very little hope that I would ever make something of my life.”

Despite this, her home was always a space of creativity – creativity that was born from necessity. Her family was always making to make do with what they had. Her grandmother and mother could take a piece of cloth and shape it into anything they wanted, without even thinking about it – a dress, a headpiece, wedding dress, curtains. Her dad could build anything from a wedding stage to a house.

When her schooling journey ended Zyma entered the world of work, because there was no money for her to study further as the barriers to tertiary education were immense. “I remember my mother telling me: you must go to work, but don’t come into the garment industry – it’s a terrible place,” says Zyma.

After working for many years and saving up money, Zyma could eventually finance her studies. In many ways, Zyma’s entry into the world of fine art was an act of defiance. “More than anything, I wanted to defy the idea that Coloured people were not capable of getting degrees and prove the government wrong,” she says.

Once she was a student, Zyma realised that she had grown up in a household of artists. It was this realisation that inspired her to use her art as a medium to tell the stories of her family of artisans, the people she loved who have always been artists.

In 2016, Zyma Amien exhibited a collection of 21 larger-than-life garment worker uniforms alongside sewing machines, titled ‘Paying Homage’ which won the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition. The seven-metre-long gauze overalls were replicas of the worker overalls that her grandmother used to wear.

This artwork is a personal story, but also representative of a large workforce of women that keeps the textile industry alive. To take in the artwork, the viewer must look up. In this act of gazing upwards, at uniforms that represent people who have historically been looked down upon, the historic power dynamic is disrupted.

Zyma’s deeply personal realisation that she comes from a family of artists speaks to a broader societal dissonance in the textile industry. There is a disconnect between who we term artists and the people who are so involved in creating the garments that adorn us and allow for our personal expression to take shape. “What I learnt from my mother and grandmother is that labourers in the factory are not allowed to think – all they are allowed to do is produce,” says Zyma, “but, once you get home, you can use those skills to make clothes for your children or make something out of your neighbour’s old curtains – and then the creative juices flow.”

Before she went to art school, her understanding of what made someone an artist was much narrower. “My perception was that artists are people who exhibit in gallery spaces. We grew up working and thinking through our hands, but we wouldn’t have been considered artists in an academic setting.”

In a sense, we have put art on a pedestal and positioned it as something that only people with access to the art world and art school. But, what Zyma speaks of is more inclusive, more expansive than this – something much more human.

“Art will always be about sharing the narratives of ordinary people,” says Zyma. There is something very special about this – the acknowledgement of the artistic labour of the everyday. This is particularly fundamental when it comes to how we reimagine the role of garment workers in the textile industry.

“If there was a mistake made in the run of garments, it was the garment workers who would shoulder the burden. At the end of that week, my mother earned almost nothing,” says Zyma. Her grandmother was a costume designer at The Cape Town Performing Arts Board, but never saw a single show. This is a story we know all too well – the most vulnerable, and the people that get paid the least, are the people that shoulder the burden of this industry.

Another of her works, titled ‘Re-Sil-i-ence’ consists of several sewing machines connected by a long cloth that runs over them. “In the word ‘resilience’, you’ll find the word ‘silence’. I found that these women, sitting behind sewing machines are extremely resilient and working in a very noisy place. There was a constant noise, but they were the silent ones. These workers faced many hardships in their lives, so they had to be tough.” The cloth hanging across shows people supporting each other and coming together.

As the covid-19 lockdowns hit, Zyma found herself drawn to Islamic scripture. Sharing and charity are big themes in Islamic religious practice. Zyma began working in a soup kitchen that prepared food for the most vulnerable people in our city. She still works there, weekly.

“Just because I’m working in a soup kitchen doesn’t mean I’ve given up on making art. But, it made a human sense for me to be there. My purpose in life is to care for the less fortunate because I’ve been there myself,” says Zyma.

“The people in the garment factory are connected, they give and share, by being there and showing up for each other,” says Zyma. “The people in the soup kitchen are also connected because we are giving and sharing.”

I asked Zyma if she thinks she will ever go back to creating fine art. “Yes. And when I do, I’ll be pulling together my Arabic, with my time in the kitchen, and my personal histories,” says Zyma. “I want my art to be about this act of sharing that brings us together. The act and comradery of giving is such a powerful thing.”

As she spoke, the link between her work as an artist and her work in the soup kitchen all made sense: Zyma’s art has always been about the human condition. The golden thread is about creating space for people who have been historically ignored – whether she is working in a soup kitchen or making art. And in some ways, the golden thread has been a happy accident. At the time, she was just doing what felt right, but looking back she feels like she has been doing what she was meant to be doing, all along.


  • Cover image: Sourced from Zyma’s website.
  • Images in article: Taken by Jackie May at the Stellenbosch Trienalle at the beginning of 2020.
  • To learn more about Zyma Amien’s work, take a look at her website.
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