Nomvulu Maquthu, whose first name means “mother of rain,” started making art 15 years ago after becoming frustrated with office work.
“I thought ‘This is not me. I need to do something that will show who I am,’” she said. “With this, you can show who you are. Whatever you call it, whether it’s art or craft, it’s who you are.”
This South African artisan said she has always loved making art and that it comes naturally to her. Maquthu never attended an art school and attributes her success to practice. She said she likes to make art that’s never been done before and her designs are the result of a lot of trial and error.
“I challenge myself to think ‘Oh this is rubbish, just something that’s sitting there’ and look at it and I say ‘I can make something out of this,’” Maquthu said.
She added that she aims for variety in her artwork and doesn’t like to stick to making one specific product. When her artisan career began, she only made jewelry like earrings and bracelets, but quickly moved on to weaving baskets composed of grass twine.
“I get tired, I want to touch something else,” Maquthu said. “I’m so diverse. I get bored of making this one thing and looking at it for many, many hours. They start to look the same!”
Recently, Maquthu started making placemats depicting South African symbols like women in traditional clothing and the country’s national animal, the Springbok. Her newest focus is wooden crosses she dyes different colors before decorating them with beads and stones.
“I felt I needed to diversify and make something big, something for the wall,” she said.
Maquthu attributes some of her artistic ability to her late mother.
“I think she was really artistic,” Maquthu said. “But she never grew up in this era. She grew up during Apartheid, where even if you were creative you wouldn’t be given an opportunity to express yourself. But we grew up in an age where – just go for it!”
In the aftermath of Apartheid, Maquthu said she views art as a mechanism to bring people of different backgrounds together. She said art makes people appreciate one another by encouraging the sharing of materials between different communities.
“You take what they have and you can produce who you are,” Maquthu said. “It’s no longer a closed-up world where you just get their stuff only.”
Maquthu’s projects usually take her between 5 and 7 days to complete, with the jewelry taking the least amount of time and the wooden crosses taking the most.
Maquthu is native to the Johannesburg suburb of Meadowlands. She said the area was originally made for farming crops, which creates difficulty in her work because the neighborhood’s high level of dust always settles on her drying artwork.
Aside from the dust, the biggest challenge Maquthu said she faces being an artisan is getting people to appreciate her work enough to pay what it’s worth.
“I believe Westerners mostly don’t respect African art,” Maquthu said. “It’s very sad. They know you spent so many hours on it. It’s a treasure, but they want to pay nothing.”
She said many of her friends have had to stop making art because they weren’t earning a decent living.
“If you can’t make a decent living on it, you drop it and go do something else,” Maqutha said. “It’s sad, because it’s your heritage.”
“It’s worth it because I spent a long time on it. I painstakingly produced it, so I should be able to earn something decent out of it,” she added. “People don’t value things that are made with care, it’s just about money and what they can show off back home. Whether I benefit from it? They don’t care.”