Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody

African Design Exported

[Editor's note: "Mr. Somebody & Mr. Nobody" is excerpted from Cultural Threads: Transnational Textiles Today, edited by Jessica Hemmings].

Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody is a collaborative practice between South African born Heidi Chisholm and Sharon Lombard who now reside in the USA. We are immigrant artists, finding ourselves ‘neither here nor there’, grappling with personal identity construction, puzzling over genealogical fuzziness, navigating political shifts and revising culture/cultural production. As South Africans we were socialised to believe that we were inherently Europeans, momentarily trapped in a ‘foreign’ land. Our current realities challenge this assumption. Culture is not hermetically sealed and symbiotic exchange between indigenous Africans and ‘us’, is a dynamic force.

Like pre-colonial African traders we peddle our wares. In the place of old trade routes, we exchange objects and ideas over the Internet and in ‘souvenir stands’/design installations that become pop-up-market-stall realities where goods are viewed and sold. The online flash sales site Fab Europe aptly describes us: ‘Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody are two stand-up (female) gents. Their collection of… African-flavoured domestic curiosities runs a spectrum of quirky cool, from radio cushions and golden chickens to multipurpose khangas that you, your bed or your dining room table can wear.’ Khangas are our special interest.

Historically, buckskin ‘khangas’ were used by San women as carrying cloths, garments and blankets. In fact the knot used to tie the suede cloths, is so indicative of women and their work, it is called ‘women’ (!kebisi). (Lee 1984: 37) In the 19th century, cotton was picked by African slaves in the USA, shipped to England, then exported to East Africa by slavers in the form of white cloth. This trade met the demand to ‘adequately’ clothe female slaves captured in East Africa. (Awaaz Magazine 2013) After abolition, this practical cloth was reclaimed by Africans and revamped with surface decoration. Around 1910, text appeared on khangas and words became crucial to their selling potential. These cloths began to express suppressed woman’s voices.

Khangas evolved as important vehicles for communication and are frequently used to create awareness or mobilise people and issues. (Swahili Proverbs 2013) This communication aspect really interests us. Like giant posters, (though much more useful!) our portable cloths broadcast humorous African proverbs inspired by the Africa we love. For decades hand-stamped khangas were produced in Eastern Africa, and up until the 1960s, most machine-printed versions came from Europe, then later India, China and Japan. Now khangas are principally produced in Tanzania, Kenya and India, for the African market. Some of our khangas are digitally printed in North Carolina, (enabling small multi-coloured runs) and sewn in Miami. Presently the Stubborn Chicken khanga, marked ‘made in South Africa’, is silkscreened in Cape Town on Indian cotton, finished by a women’s cooperative there, then exported back to Miami for distribution.

Khangas ‘are an on going part of the great trading network which has thrived for at least two thousand years between the many peoples of the Indian Ocean littoral.’ (British Museum 2013) Khangas reflect and document the times. The design collaboration of Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody is a page in this human story. We view the process and results as ‘ours’, recognising that larger cultures and cultural productions are shared human experiences.

 

Bibliography

Awaaz Magazine (2013), <http://www.awaazmagazine.com/index.php/component/k2/item/258-language-of... kanga> [Accessed 1 March 2013].

British Museum (2013), <http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/projects/kanga_and_printed_textile... [Accessed 1 March 2103].

Lee, R. B. (1984),The Dobe !Kung: Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, CBS College Publishing: 37.

Swahili Proverbs (2013), <http://swahiliproverbs.afrst.illinois.edu/kangas.htm> [Accessed 1 March 2013].

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