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Meet the man who pioneered telephone-wire basket weaving in SA

Durban's legendary craftsman Elliot Mkhize has been weaving his magic since the 1970s

12 December 2017 - 09:58 By Shubnum Khan
Elliot Mkhize has been weaving with wire since the 1970s.
Elliot Mkhize has been weaving with wire since the 1970s.
Image: Supplied

"I don't think about anything when I weave, I just relax," says pioneer of telephone-wire basket-weaving Elliot Mkhize at the opening
of an exhibition showcasing his work at
Glenwood's Phansi Museum.

The local legend, who is well into his 70s, looked dapper in a hat and suit, and spoke briefly about his history with weaving before proudly pointing out his giggling grandchildren in the audience.

For the sheer amount of work he's produced since the 1970s, he's a quiet and humble man who explains gently why he loves what he does.

"Telephone-wire weaving gives me great joy; it has enabled me to provide for and educate my family. I was able to pay lobola for my wife and it has raised my standard of living. It has kept me and many others whom I have taught from poverty, but most of all it has kept me safe and off the streets," says Mkhize.

A job as a night watchman at the Playhouse theatre complex introduced him to the world of telephone-wire weaving. When Mkhize saw the brightly coloured telephone wires night watchmen used to cover knobkerries and sticks, he said to himself: "That is something amazing, man."

He started to adapt the technique by weaving traditional bowls and is credited as being the inventor of wire basket-weaving in the 1970s.

The collection boasts some of his finest work, from large dishes and walking sticks to bottle holders and wire characters.

Each work is detailed and each turn of the metal is calculated according to a mathematical system that must be followed precisely.

The weaving, all done by hand, draws you in and implies a strong sense of patience and self-assurance.

One of Elliot Mkhize's works.
One of Elliot Mkhize's works.
Image: Supplied

Also on display is work by artists he mentored in KwaMashu. These include Zodwa Maphumulo, Bheki Dlamini, Dudu Cele and Ntombifuthi Magwaza, who have become established artists in their own right, although curator Sharon Crampton is quick to point out that their styles differ slightly, with Mkhize avoiding letters and figures, while the younger artists employ these in their works.

A small basket usually takes about a month to complete. Mkhize uses a hard-wire technique called coiling in which the baskets are woven from the inside out. This requires enormous skill and is hard on the fingers.

His two sons are also basket weavers and he speaks proudly of them as they, too, are passing down their skills to children in the community.

Mkhize seems as proud of his garden, which he's quick to show us a picture of. He enjoys gardening he says and he sells his produce to local markets.

It's clear that Mkhize's hands were meant to provide others with wholesome creations that are good for not only body, but also soul.

Elliot Mkhize's exhibit runs at Phansi Museum, Durban, until January 13.

This article was originally published in The Times.