The blood-sucker bird: A woven narrative of exploitation and dependency



Weaving, tapestry, apartheid, Thabana li Mele, Lesotho, migrancy


One of the most renowned tapestry ventures in South Africa is the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre, Rorke’s Drift, initiated in 1963. Less well-known is the subsequent centre started by its Swedish founders, Ulla and Peder Gowenius, in neighbouring Lesotho. Thabana li Mele, as this initiative was called, opened in 1968, and within two years, 200 villagers wove a range of textiles, including pictorial tapestries. However, this thriving operation would be short-lived, forced to close in 1970, by an ally of white South Africa, Lesotho’s Leabua Jonathan regime. Apartheid-era writings have offered limiting representations of these events, and Thabana li Mele’s weavers and their works are now all but forgotten. As the author shows, The blood-sucker bird (1969), a tapestry from this centre on which some material has survived, suggests that Thabana li Mele was destined to be more than just a poverty-alleviation initiative. Woven by an unknown woman, this bold artwork articulates Lesotho’s subaltern status as a land-locked labour reserve for South Africa’s mines. Reminiscent of oral art forms, its symbolic language interrogates the hegemonies that engineered the lives of Basotho communities forced into migrancy and economic dependency on South Africa. The tapestry also yields insight into the creative agency of a marginalised community.






Themed section: Material narratives