Symbolism in sangoma cloth: a South African printmaking journey from the liminal to the liminoid

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Rankou-Radebe, Mavis Lebohang
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Vaal University of Technology
The sangoma cloth is one of the objects which the Zulu people use to utilised in terms of culture and tradition and still is significant amongst African diviners. Initially, sangomas (traditional healers/diviners) dressed in animal skin, but because of the lack or deficiency of the animal skin, the cloth substituted the skin. The cloth carries a wealth of sacred symbolism and meanings which have been constructed by the sangoma community to best fit or describe the symbolic meanings and the potencies embedded in them. However, such cultural artefacts and symbols change over time, and new ones emerge through cultural practice. Therefore, the tension between conserving the religious and sacred, on the one hand, and the emerging, context and contingency based development on the other leads to problems of acceptability, authorized use and sanctified adaptation. This project explores the symbolism in the meaning and function of the sangoma sacred cloth which forms part of the sangoma dress code. It sets out three sets of interwoven binaries or tensions. Firstly, it explores the tensions between the liminal of ritual practices, and the liminoid (following Turner 1969), so that the second set of tensions, namely between the sacred and the profane (or secular or the commodified) can be explored. This leads to the third set of tensions, namely between Indigenous Knowledge Systems on the one hand and a potential Global Knowledge System on the other. In this way the tensions in the use of the sangoma cloth was explored, to attempt to determine a system that would assist in defining at what moment and following what dynamics the symbology would move from one side of the set of tensions to the other. The artist/researcher worked together with a focus group of sangomas who are part of a nongovernmental organization are based in Sedibeng region. This study’s research methodology is a Practice-led research approach within the framework of qualitative research methodology in the Fine Arts. The first method of data collection included one-on-one interviews from which the data was analysed and from which the existing designs could be reworked into new ones. Following this, a series of design and artmaking processes were followed, where five original cloth designs were taken through six different redesign iterations. The third method was a focus group method where the focus group participants (consisting of the original sangoma community, but with a ritual to request insight from the ancestors/amadlozi and therefore their contributions) was employed to view the five sets of redesigned cloths, to attempt to establish the moment when the Indigenous Knowledge System and the sacred of the sangoma cloth enters the secular domain which forms part of Global Knowledge Systems. The research project offers one system or methodology which is based on comparison as presented by the community who claim originality, in that the community itself decide when something needs to be protected by IKS and when it may be allowed to move into a public, shared, domain. The findings of this project were done by the owners of the cloth which resulted in them stating that: to claim IKS, one has to make an inquiry with the community who owns it; one cannot claim an entire design as IKS due to the composition or design having individual elements which have distinct meanings; The element of colour plays a dominant role within the sangoma community; and finally, for this project a clear and powerful system of humanity was set out by the sangomas/amadlozi that the sacredness of the cloth lies with the human who wears or uses it, and not with the cloth itself.
M. Tech. (Department of Visual Arts and Design, Faculty of Human Sciences),Vaal University of Technology.
Sangoma cloth, Printmaking, Liminal, Liminoid, Indigenous knowledge system