Fresh prints: Afro gets its chic back
Could it be a coincidence that as Amanda Laird Cherry, high-priestess of the Afrochic fashion movement, has presented a retrospective of her fashion oeuvre at the Durban Art Museum, the Shweshwe print is winding its way into art? Where once these bold geometric patterns printed on hard cotton fabrics were the preserve of rural women, in the early 2000s they became a style statement on the SA Fashion Week ramps. Wearing a Shweshwe garment was a way of aligning yourself with the new Afrocentric outlook, despite the fact that the design had its origin in Europe and was largely printed by a Dutch company.By the late noughties, Shweshwe had become everyday and had lost its cultural significance as it was used for everything from place mats to oven mitts. In more recent years Anmari Honiball has sought to revive the print on the ramp, absorbing inserts into her collage-like brand of fashion design. However, it is artists who are bringing it back. Siwa Mgoboza, who recently exhibited at Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town, is one whose work is defined by these distinctive prints. He generates collages with them or uses them with photographs, where they act as camouflage for the androgynous subject appearing in them.The print plays with the idea of Shweshwe as a shorthand for an imagined African identity that evades specifics. Ultimately, it provides a cloak beneath which his subject can escape or remodel his identity. In this way Mgoboza returns to that euphoric space in the noughties when traditional boundaries around identity had fallen away.Of course, now he knows it was a false state - whereas dedicated followers of Afrochic believed these prints pinned down their position in the sociopolitical landscape. For Lizette Chirrime, the Mozambican showing A Sinfonia da Alma Liberta II (Sounds of a Free Soul) at Worldart gallery, Shweshwe print is also a substitute for skin. Her art might be dominated by abstract shapes consisting of Shweshwe collages, but with hands and feet protruding from these forms they operate as distorted images of the body. This relates to her motivation for becoming an artist, which was to confront a negative self-image and find redemption.As with Simphiwe Ndzube, who is showing Dear Europa at Whatiftheworld, working with prints and clothing items is the means through which "internal pain can be re-stitched or healed".As such, artists aren't using bold prints to celebrate being African but rather to heal wounds from the past. A more authentic Afrochic movement, perhaps?..