Tinyiko Makwakwa is a maker. The 37 year-old, who grew up in Tzaneen, Limpopo, rejects other labels. She likes the freedom of not being defined. Language is too limiting, she says. She is not a designer. Nor a textile artist. She likes to be left to make…. and with this freedom she sometimes creates textiles, sometimes art, sometimes colour. Tinyiko’s Instagram page is a record of her making adventures. On it you’ll find splashes of liquids, balls of wool, fluff, flowers, textiles, her adventures with natural botanical dyeing and friends.
“I just make stuff. I’m experimenting, with the hope that something will come out of those experiments,” she says over a Zoom call.
Last year Tinyiko exhibited a collection of works, delicate abstract illustrations using textile as her medium, at the Kalashnikov Gallery in Johannesburg. “Now that my work has appeared in a gallery, is it art?” she wonders skeptically. “Just because it’s in a gallery, I don’t want it defined or placed in a category without acknowledging where it comes from.
Descriptions and reviews of the exhibition didn’t box Tinyiko’s experiments. Bubblegum commentator Khensani Mohlatlole described the exhibition “Cosmos and Community” as an extension of Tinyiko’s research and experimentation into botanical dyes, Earth pigments, historical cloth making and needlecraft…” Tshedza Mashamba wrote that “Makwakwa’s work is a documentation of her foremothers and fathers’ Van’wanti clan history before it was interrupted by the colonial encounter.” Both commentators honour Tinyiko’s work for what it is about: care, community, experimentation and sustainability.
Still there are questions. Tinyiko says, “I don’t think people understand my work because this isn’t the kind of stuff a lot of black people do. People look at me as a black person who has white people’s hobbies”. Tinyiko believes this misunderstanding comes from our disconnection from nature. “We have become so detached from our own realities that we have no understanding of our relationship to nature.” She explores the idea that when people were removed from rural areas as cheap labour, displacement happened, a displacement from and disconnection from nature.
She is concerned with how little we know and understand about materials. For instance, do we know what unprocessed mohair looks like and where it comes from? “We are so detached we have no clue where things come from.”
Tinyiko carefully sources fabrics and materials such as raffia and wool, and mohair (Did you know that currently South Africa produces approximately 50% of the world’s mohair?). Animal fibres are best for botanical dyeing. “I imbue materials with natural pigments”. For her botanical dyes, Tinyiko uses what is regarded as organic waste: onion skins, avocado, pomegranate… “I don’t understand how we can call organic matter waste when you can put them in the ground to compost and to help regenerate soil”.
Tinyiko is meticulous about what happens with resources and materials at the end of her process: Nothing is thrown away. Botanical dyes are stored for later pigments and painting. She has used them for making colourful soy wax crayons. “I’m always thinking about the end of the process and what else is there to make with the materials. Instead of throwing anything away, I explore how far I can stretch one material. What new products can I make?”
In our conversation, Tinyiko wonders whether we need to rethink language. How does our language help us understand the life cycle of products? And how does it help with the preservation of knowledge? How does it preserve culture? Tinyiko thinks of how we know when it’s the right time for harvesting plants for dyes, what pigments to use as sunscreen…. She is particularly interested in matrimonial mythology. Information is often passed from generation to generation through mothers and grandmothers who are the storytellers in our families. “They are the ones who give you recipes. If you have an ailment, they will teach you healing methods. They are the caregivers.”
“My work and my stories are always centred around cultural preservation. Before, this would have happened orally, now I’m archiving information digitally on Instagram.”
Tinyiko is a maker… and while she may not care for labels, she is a caregiver. Her storytelling, making and approach to sustainability is about care for her ancestors’ practices, for cultural preservation and for Earth.
- Images supplied by Tinyiko Makwakwa. Follow her on Instagram @tinyikomakwakwa