Tuesday, 26 February 2013

THE ISISHWESHWE STORY: MATERIAL WOMEN? Iziko Slave Lodge 23 February 2013 until 31 December 2014

Written by

It is with great anticipation that Iziko Museums of South Africa announces a new exhibition at the Slave Lodge.  The isiShweshwe Story: Material Women? is thefirst in-depth exhibition on the patterned cotton fabric, generally known today as isishweshwe.  

The exhibition deals with the origins and uses of isishweshwe andits uniquely important place in the development of dress and community in South Africa. The story of isishweshwe (ijerimani, motoishi, German print, blou sis) is wide-ranging, and one that reflects on trade and cultural interchanges across continents, of social and economic destruction and of indigenization and cultural re-invention.

The isiShweshwe Story: Material Women? showcases costume used in rural cultural practices, designer fashion garments, daily wear, as well as accessories.  A research collection of garments and images, donated by art historian and lecturer, Dr Juliette Leeb-du Toit, will be on public display for the first time.  Garments by Amanda Laird-Cherry and Bongiwe Walaza form part of the collection.

Promising to be a visual feast, the exhibition also includes designer wear donated to Iziko by Cape Town fashion designers, Luiz Delaja, Louis Klopper and Cheryl Arthur. A small but intriguing selection of historical garments and images from the Iziko Social History department’s own collection forms part of the exhibition.

The exhibition reveals how the identities of wearers of isishweshwe have changed over the long period that it has been in use in South and southern Africa, and how they are still changing. Isishweshwe was adopted as ‘blue print’ in South Africa more than 150 years ago. Introduced by missionaries, traders, and settlers, it was adapted and incorporated into traditional dress and African rural customs, mainly by women. It was also worn early on by Dutch/Afrikaans-speaking women in the rural areas of the Transvaal and Free State; and later adopted to show solidarity with the apartheid struggle by white women. In recent decades it has emerged on the international fashion circuit presented by famous South Africa haute couturiers and more recently it has become a form of everyday African dress in the town and country, worn by working class and middle class women; also increasingly by South African men in a fashion context.

The exhibition reveals the roots of printed cottons and indigo to be in India. It tells how village textile makers in Europe simplified the colourful and fashionable Indian resist-printed cottons to the use of indigo blue and how during the 19th century factories, mainly in Germany and Britain, began the mass production of the sturdy cotton blue print with a new technique of discharge-printing. It was both village and later factory-produced European blue printed cottons that reached the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal and other regions of southern Africa.

Today, discharge-prints – in South Africa regarded as 'real' isishweshwe – are made only at Da Gama Textiles in Zwelitsha near King William's Town – and increasingly in a range of bright fashionable colours. Cheaper imitations are also being made both locally and in the East, though purists will always choose 'real' isishweshwe, which is recognised by its smell, taste and the distinctive logos printed on the reverse of the fabric.

The isiShweshwe Story: Material Women? is presented and curated by Iziko Social History and Juliette Leeb-du Toit. The exhibition has been made possible with the support and sponsorship of the Cape Town Fashion Council, Consulate General of Germany in Cape Town, Da Gama Textiles and the National Heritage Council. 

The Textile Gallery at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum has been refurbished in celebration of this exhibition. The exhibition opens to the public on 23 February 2013 and will run to coincide with Cape Town’s reign as World Design Capital in 2014.

The Iziko Slave Lodge, located on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets, Cape Town, is open Mondays to Saturdays from 10:00 until 17:00. Closed on Sundays, Workers' Day and Christmas Day. 


Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko) operates 11 national museums, the Planetarium, the Social History Centre and three collection–specific libraries in Cape Town.  The museums that make up Iziko have their own history and character, presenting extensive art, social and natural history collections that reflect our diverse African heritage.  Iziko is a public entity and non-profit organisation that brings together these museums under a single governance and leadership structure.  The organisation allows *free access to all individuals on commemorative days, (excluding the Castle of Good Hope and Planetarium).

COMMEMORATIVE DAYS – FREE ENTRANCE (excluding Iziko Planetarium and Castle of Good Hope)

  •          Human Rights Day: 21 March
  •          Freedom Day: 27 April
  •          International Museum Day: 25 May
  •          Africa Day: 25 May
  •          Youth Day: 16 June
  •          National Women’s Day: 9 August
  •          Heritage Day: 24 September
  •          National Aids Awareness Day: 1 December
  •          Emancipation Day: 1 December
  •          Day of Reconciliation: 16 December

Issued by: Melody Kleinsmith
Communications Coordinator: Institutional Advancement, Iziko Museums
Telephone +27 (0) 21 481 3861
Facsimile +27 (0) 21 481 9620
E-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Website www.iziko.org.za

On behalf of:    Office of the CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa