Decolonising Jewellery. Article part of the Master Degree Thesis by Khanya Mthethwa

Article  /  History   CriticalThinking   Research
Published: 26.01.2023
Khanya Mthethwa
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Jewellery is a form of adornment that has been around since ancient times. It is a reflection of a person's style, culture, and personality. As a South African jewellery designer, I seek to find ways of expressing my heritage and that of other indigenous people by questioning, what is a South African alternative to contemporary jewellery?
In a post-apartheid South Africa where democracy has been in place for twenty-eight years, ironically we are far removed from the goal of a unified nation, but rather find ourselves wedged in a future that is fragmented. As a form of escape from the current state of affairs, there has been a rebirth and emerging sense of pride in being South African within black ethnic groups. This has directly given voice to a consciousness concerning black cultural identity. One could view this trend as a coping mechanism, or an attempt to trace what was lost in colonial South Africa, where colonial practices took precedence over our indigenous cultures. This has resulted in a contemporary trend of consciousness, a calling for black people to reconnect with their cultural roots.

South Africa is a fragmented country with its citizens grappling with hybrid identities, it is essential that, while we embark on a journey of discovery, our destination is reached when Africa becomes the root and extension of itself. As a South African whose identity has been shaped by a history linked to influences from the West, I take interest in embarking on a journey of an African narrative in design. The jewellery discussed in this study explores design from an Afrocentric perspective.

I am inclined to advocate the need for decolonisation as a practice that is encouraged within a South African jewellery-making context. I believe this will allow jewellery designers to produce pieces that reference South African history, and further include the outlook of a younger generation with hybrid identities. As Africa grows eager to have its voice and perspective projected through fashion and art, jewellery designers in South Africa seem to be uncertain as to what determines an Afrocentric jewellery aesthetic.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2004 - p.88) argues that the colonial and neo-colonial stages of imperialism dictate how we perceive and position ourselves within an environment; that we might understand the importance and correct perspective with regards to the struggle against imperialism, when we observe the effects and implications imperialism has had on ourselves and how we view ourselves in the universe. His argument highlights the importance of navigating contemporary spaces without disregarding indigenous influences that affect our view of the world, and ourselves as occupants of the world. Therefore, by decolonising the knowledge systems that have continually upheld Western culture as superior to our own, we strip these structures of their power and we thereby have the potential to locate and understand our identities.

Achille Mbembe (2015- p.17) further elaborates on Thiong’o’s perspective:
Decolonization is a project of 're-centring'. It is about rejecting the assumption that the modern West is the central root of Africa’s consciousness and cultural heritage. It is about rejecting the notion that Africa is merely an extension of the West.

Therefore, through this paper, I use an example of designs inspired by the indigenous people of Kwa-Zulu Natal. I demonstrate that Zulu people have a history (and potential future) of body adornments that are not entirely reliant on Western influences. During the contemporary jewellery forum held at the University of Johannesburg in 2017, the speakers highlighted the need to grow the contemporary jewellery industry in the country. However, it was evident that there is no distinct South African jewellery aesthetic. Definitions of contemporary jewellery appeared to be unclear, and remain uncontested with no singular definition in the country. Each speaker at the forum addressed different aspects which constitute the contemporary jewellery industry. One of the speakers, Chris de Beer from Durban University of Technology, mentioned encouraging the different backgrounds of students in his department as a source of inspiration for these students to work with. He advised on how designers might implement a South African alternative to contemporary jewellery, however, following the end of the forum a South African aesthetic remained undefined.

De Beer’s speech made it apparent that academics play a major role in how jewellery might be perceived and communicated within a South African context. Linda Smith (1999 - p.35-37) argues that our approaches are framed by how we understand the academic disciplines we have been trained in. She further elaborates that the books in our education system do not reinforce customs, values, identities and cultures (Smith - 1999). Therefore, in the quest to redefine South African contemporary jewellery, a reimagining of Zulu adornments is fundamental.

It is important to note that, although there is no singular definition of South African contemporary jewellery, designers such as De Beer draw inspiration from indigenous cultural practices in a move towards producing jewellery with a South African aesthetic. In the past, De Beer has created jewellery inspired by izimbadada, Zulu sandals made of tyres and rubber (Figure 2.4–Figure 2.7). De Beer collaborated with Zulu craftsmen who cut material from tyres into strips, he then transformed the strips into jewellery.

Figure 2.4: Chris de Beer on designing jewellery with an indigenous inspiration. Design Indaba 2012 (Screenshot by author).​

Figure 2.5: Chris de Beer on designing jewellery with an indigenous inspiration. Design Indaba 2012 (Screenshot by author).

Figure 2.6: Chris de Beer on designing jewellery with an indigenous inspiration. Design Indaba 2012 (Screenshot by author).

Figure 2.7: Chris de Beer on designing jewellery with an indigenous inspiration. Design Indaba 2012 (Screenshot by author).​

Many African intellectuals have begun to resist the positioning of their continent on the periphery of global currents, but instead strive to make their space a centre in which diversity is not only celebrated but also respected. This raises several questions: How do South African jewellers become part of this moving vehicle? How do designers in this country begin to challenge Eurocentric jewellery styles by defining and owning a new definition of South African jewellery? Over and above that, what dictates what is African and what is not, when our continent and country are so diverse? These are challenging questions, but nonetheless, they provide a starting point to address them.

One may propose that the starting point for jewellers involves viewing adornments found among indigenous groups as having as great a value as Eurocentric jewellery. The labour, artistry and skill involved in making traditional beaded adornments, I argue, requires the same degree of expertise as that of a goldsmith. The major difference is the materials used in traditional jewellery. Therefore, looking closely into various indigenous groups’ traditional adornments generates possibilities for how jewellery, even defined through a Eurocentric lens, might be developed in a way that recognises African influence. Closer investigation of how indigenous people adorn their bodies may also provide designers with the opportunity to design for body parts often neglected in traditional jewellery practice.

The history of indigenous peoples has long been distorted, making the indigenous spectators to their own ‘histories’, and it is during colonialism that these groups struggled against a Western view of their history, and yet are complicit with that view (Smith 1999 - p.33). It is time that indigenous people take back their power by expressing a narrative informed by their experiences. In order to do this, Kwesi Kwaa Prah cited in Philani Jili (2000 - p.70-71) is of the view that language plays a pivotal role in the realisation of the African Renaissance. There is a need for our cultural and historical belonging to become building blocks in an Afrocentric approach (Jili 2000). Concerning this paper within a jewellery-making context, cultural practices may assist in creating pieces that translate into an Afrocentric aesthetic.

One may argue that employing the African Renaissance or black consciousness discourse might encourage segregation. However, I am of the same view as Jili (2000:4) that one objective of the African Renaissance in a South African context seeks to create a national culture that embraces and celebrates diverse identities, rather than simply replacing the apartheid discourse. In a South African context, this presents an opportunity for designers to celebrate their diverse or hybrid identities using jewellery as a tool of expression.

- Jili, P. 2000. African identity and an African renaissance. Unpublished Doctoral dissertation, University of Natal.
- Mbembe, A. 2015. Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive, in: Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER). [O] Available: [Accessed June 2017].
- Smith, L.T. 1999. Decolonising methodologies. Research and Indigenous peoples. London and New York: University of Otago Press.
- Thiong’o, N. 2004. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd.

>> Read the complete Master Thesis HERE


About the author

Khanya Mthethwa is an award-winning jewellery designer that was born in Kwa- Zulu Natal, currently working as an academic at the University of Johannesburg. Some of her prominent accomplishments within academia include a Master of Art in the field of design, Rough Diamond Evaluation and Diamond cutting certificates. At the present moment, she is also a PhD candidate at the University of Johannesburg in the department of Visual Art majoring in Art History. When she is not immersed in her studies and lecturing, she takes on the role of founder and CEO of Changing Facets, a company that specializes in contemporary, wearable art jewellery that draws inspiration from indigenous cultures within the African continent. She passionately advocates for the growth of jewellery in the country and has since become the driving force behind the establishment of the South African Jewellery Week event which is notably the first platform of its kind in the country. The event aims to provide and garner the attention of potential clients for designers.

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