The scenes Maria Rengane embroiders on simple black cloth are alive with the comings and goings of life and the rich scenes of human interaction in the small market village of Soshanguve, South Africa, where she lives.
The village is near the town of Winterveld, which sits midway between the Blyde River Canyon and the southern Kruger National Park. It is an area noted for its local crafts people plying their trade.
Maria is from the Tsonga tribe and has always lived in a place where people from a variety of tribes have managed to live in peace side-by-side. While she learned embroidery from her mother, who learned it from her mother, Maria now works in the MAPULA (Mother of Rain) Embroidery Project, a community art venture aimed at generating income for economically disadvantaged women.
MAPULA prides itself on providing a rare look of both social and political visual history shown in the embroidered scenes, which often include a woman’s personal experiences.
"All the pieces show cultural and daily activities," Maria said. "We use black fabric and different colors of cotton and needles. I work with ten ladies, each of whom works on her own design. It takes from five to ten days to finish one piece, depending on the size and detail."
Maria explained that the embroidered cloth comes in various sizes, which are used in wall hangings, cushions and bags. She has been practicing embroidery since 1989, and now teaches other women in her community to use embroidery as a vehicle to work their way out of poverty as well as a way to speak of their public histories.
"The embroidery art form has mushroomed in the north and northwestern parts of South Africa," Maria said. "The art has emanated from the indigenous embroidered technique that women used years ago to decorate their own fabric used in their daily lives as well as in special cultural events."
Maria explained that the women would design their own fabrics according to what inspired them throughout their lives, and because they could not afford fine, expensive tablecloths and wall hangings, they used a plain cloth and decorated it themselves.
When the MAPULA project was begun in 1991, Maria said she joined because not only was embroidery something she knew how to do, but now she had an opportunity to help teach others as well as learn new techniques from other women at the same time.
“It was interesting to see our daily lives depicted on these cloths,” she said. “In Africa, our lives are inspired on a daily basis. You can tell our how are lives are going by what you see in our work. Through our work, we can explain the mood we are in, whether we’re happy or sad. We unite together through this fabric and that helps us to tell others who we are.”