Textile designer Nkuli Mlangeni shares her journey through South America

The journey of textile designer Nkuli Mlangeni’s exquisitely handcrafted Sankara rug – which was declared the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2017 at the coveted Design Indaba Festival – began in South Africa, but led her to places afar, where she found inspiration, growth and a new perspective.

Born in Kagiso, Gauteng, various achievements of the co-founder of Live Magazine may arguably position her as an influential voice in the creative and urban culture landscape of South Africa, the continent and the world. In 2007, she was named a Young Curator by Cape Africa Platform, and in 2016, one of Mzansi’s 100 Young Independents. Mlangeni is also part of the The Ninevites, which is a collective enterprise that “celebrates black aesthetics” through textile designs and curated events.

She told us about her voyage through South America with her daughter, where she found inspiration for her Sankara rug.

Why South America?

It was part of my exam research, but mainly because I’ve always been interested in South America and the similarities between it and Africa. There’s just not enough travel or trade that happens between the two continents, even though there’s so much we can share. There’s so much we can learn from them and them from us. I was curious about life there, from seeing the pictures of how colourful it is. It just looks so beautiful.

What stood out for you in terms of the similarities between SA and South America?

The importance of culture, and the history. However, when it comes to business and textiles on both continents, with craft mainly, it’s not seen as a major contributor to the economy, or properly formalised like other sectors. Also, I noticed that when you go to many of the markets where crafters are selling their products, it’s mainly targeted at tourists – like going to Green Market Square in Cape Town. The designs are based mostly on what they think tourists want in terms of the stereotypes of what Africa is. That poses challenges in how the designs can evolve, so they remain similar and less relevant to alternative markets. But clearly, there’s a demand. The medicine there is one of the things I was also really fascinated by. Shamanism and medicine is like a lot of our traditional medicine; I learnt a lot from some shamans in Colombia. There’s also a market in Peru, in Cusco, where a lot of women sell traditional medicine, so they’re still very much in touch with tradition there, which is beautiful.

How do traditions or culture influence textile designs in South America?

There are textiles I bought of embroidery that was done by locals inspired by iowaska, and the detail is so intricate in the designs. So yes, the tradition does also inspire their weaving. People there are also very much in touch with nature and are strongly influenced by that too.

Did you have any preconceived notions before travelling there?

Well when you watch a lot of American movies, you may end up with the idea that Colombia is run by gangsters, but I did a lot of research before I left. What stood out was the food, the colours, the plants and the landscape, which was really amazing. The people there are also so humble. They were actually quite curious about Africa as well. People may also think it’s expensive to go to South America, yet it may be just as expensive as going to the US, but once you’re there it’s cheaper to also travel to other countries.

How did your trip there influence your personal or career growth?

I travelled with my daughter who was six at the time, and I didn’t really know what to expect travelling as a black woman with a child, and her starting school a bit later. But we travelled together for four months and she learnt so much, and I got to learn a lot through her too. She’s so brave and fearless, and she adjusted so easily to new environments, and took in other cultures. She also interacted with the other children there without really being scared. When we came back, she was even speaking a bit of Spanish. So I learnt about being more flexible, not being scared and just going with the flow. When we came back, she started Grade one and she did really well at school. I think it’s important for kids to travel and learn more about other people’s cultures. It was cool; we lived close to the people and in the actual communities.

Any advice for someone considering travelling to South America?

Try to learn a few Spanish words if you can because not a lot of people speak English. Try the Pesco sour which is an amazine Peruvian cocktail. Also make sure to try some ceviche – it’s a raw fish dish (which I actually feel like eating now!). Just be open.

We’ll be following Mlangeni as she travels through Copenhagen, Denmark, and Sweden over the coming weeks. Keep an eye on our Instagram page for more.

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