see Introduction see Artists see Examples see imbenge see Home 




Statement by the Ethnologist Dr. Eisenhofer

Telephone wire art

In South Africa they have been a familiar part of the street scene in large towns and on heavily travelled country roads: men and women peddling wares woven from colourful telephone wire. No one really knows who was the first person to think of handling traditional weaving techniques and forms by using the new, 'foreign' material. Receptacles and the covers of vessels, for instance, which for a long time were woven from native plants in natural colours, are now, with the same consummate artistry, composed of telephone wires in an array of colours which would once have been inconceivable. Security guards in the cities may presumably be credited with pioneering this craft as a remedy for boredom and, additionally, as a lucrative sideline.

In any case, these works have, particularly in recent years, become a sort of trade mark nationally and abroad for aesthetic creativity in a new post-Apartheid South Africa because of their patterns so reminiscent of Op Art and because of the ingenuity and inventiveness manifest in them. The first works made from telephone wire in the early years bore an even closer resemblance to the traditional works made of plant fibres whereas in the works of recent years more deliberate use is made of the colour range of the new material to create new compositions of patterns.

Rarely have works made of telephone wire been done as 'art for art's sake'. Further, they derive from reference systems that are different to those of Western art. This is why the simply inexhaustible supply of spontaneous brainwaves and original ideas they represent have stood, with the 'African Renaissance' in full spate, for the rediscovery and appreciation of long suppressed traditions, overlooked skills and the hitherto unperceived creativity of black population groups.

In the construction of a post-Apartheid society, they also reflect, as exhibits in South African museums, both the revision and rewriting of an art history that had been in denial for decades and the abolition of hierarchies. Presented in juxtaposition with works by world-famous artists, they signalise the equality of work by artists formed by Western urban society and that created by people who, under Apartheid, were denied access to education, international careers and often even to basic materials.

Moreover, telephone wires symbolise in southern Africa a readiness to communicate with what is new and foreign as well as the ability to be receptive to something that is at first unfamiliar. How creative the local take on global phenomena is shows up most clearly in works done in this material. Indeed they furnish striking proof that variety and diversity need not be forced to yield to a levelling off and dumbing-down that suppress individual identity. On the contrary, they demonstrate that fascinating and distinctive new phenomena can emerge from relevant involvement with what is topical.

Telephone wires are definitely not just a symbol for issues arising from the dramatic social upheavals going on in South Africa but just as unmistakably stand for our own society and indeed the whole Western world. After all, telephone cable as a material on the whole raises, in an era in which it is being increasingly replaced by optical fibre and other state-of-the-art technologies, questions of the gradual but continuous growth from old structures, of transitions from the industrial to the information society, from the machine age to the media age. Telephone wire, therefore, often evokes both regional and global upheavals as well as the increasing ephemeral nature of modern phenomena.

Telephone wires stand for a networking world. On the other hand, how and where is this taking place? If it is limited to the plane of communications technology and to the economic sphere, people are only seemingly and conditionally coming closer together. Isn't it more important to push ahead with this networking on other essential planes as well?

The 'imbenge-dreamhouse' project, with participants from several continents whose backgrounds and ways of seeing themselves differ very widely, represents such an attempt at state-of-the-art global networking. Based on reciprocal readiness to communicate, it dealt with the numerous opportunities that grow out of that stance as well as the difficulties it causes and ultimately showed that sincere dialogues accomplish far more than monologic expression of 'combative convictions' does.

Dr. Stefan Eisenhofer
State Museum for Ethnology, Munich
Head of the Africa section