Artist learns craft through travel

Lekgaba tie- dyes T-shirt, creates different batik patterns on fabrics
Lekgaba tie- dyes T-shirt, creates different batik patterns on fabrics

Batik, a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to a whole cloth, which then produces different patterns, is an ancient art form.

While its origins have been traced to China where the technique was practiced as early as the Sui Dynasty, it is also believed that it was already practiced in Africa by the fifth century.

In Egypt, linen and occasionally woollen fabrics, have been excavated bearing white patterns on a blue ground and are the oldest known dating from the fifth century A.D.

Craftsmen and -women who favour this kind of art also seem automatically attracted to another form called tie-dye, which consists of folding, twisting, plaiting, or crumpling fabric or a garment and binding with string or rubber bands, followed by application of dye.

Before it became popular in United States of America, tie-dye had already been practiced in Colombia as early as 500 AD.

Thapong Visual Arts Centre based artist Rebecca Lekgaba could not resist the lure of these ancient forms of art. The elderly craftswoman in her early life used to be an ardent traveller traversing through Africa’s plains. As they say, travelling does not only refresh the mind it opens one to many possibilities and often provides a perfect learning experience.

Her well-cherished trips into Africa made her appreciate batik and tie-dye.  Today she uses both techniques to earn a living.

“Meeting people of a different culture from yours makes you curious and at times anxious to learn. I remember my time at Cape Coast in Ghana where I met people who were dealing in batik and tie-dye and I got interested. The way they held dearly to this was so inspiring, it just made me want to learn more about it,” she told Arts & Culture.

A few years later she was in Ethiopia where she met people who were passionate about the trade and her interest grew.

“People there made very beautiful pieces and were very creative, not only in terms of the patterns created but also the kind of designs made out of the dyed cloths,” she said. There are examples of batik textiles in many parts of Africa but the most developed skills are to be found in Nigeria where the Yoruba people make adire cloths. The patterning of cloth is usually a family tradition handed down from mother to daughter.

“I know in Botswana there are only a few artists who are showing interest in these two techniques but they are very popular in West Africa where most of the locals order their stuff from. In those parts of Africa, it is not just a way of generating income, it is forms of their culture and hence it is passed from generation to generation,” she said.

In Ethiopia, Lekgaba also learnt that the different shapes printed on the fabric had some historical or cultural significance.

After acquiring the skills, Lekgaba did not immediately put them to use.   It was only five years ago that she decided to put her African adventure experience and knowledge into good use.

“I started doing this at home here in Gaborone and a few people expressed interest and with time came new ideas and I ended up with a studio here at Thapong,” she said.

Lekgaba tie-dyes t-shirts, creates different batik patterns on fabrics, which she either sells directly to designers or designs clothes herself from the fabrics. She also designs pillowcases, sofa covers and quilts.

According to her, white Batswana are more interested in her products than many black people who are still reluctant to acquire them.

“Organisations like Kalahari Quilts buy from me, but I would like to see more ordinary Batswana visit my stall more even during my days at the flea market. Some rock ‘n roll enthusiasts have been supportive, also buying my military tie-dye t-shirts,” she said. In West Africa and Ethiopia it is a norm for these skills to be transferred from mother to daughter, but unfortunately for Lekgaba none of her children have shown interest.

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