Story Cloths as a Counter-archive : the Mogalakwena Craft Art Development Foundation Embroidery Project

In South Africa there has been a growing recognition of community craft projects in
previously marginalised communities. They are acknowledged for their artistic merit, and for
the fact that they serve as a means of economic empowerment for especially black South
African women. This study goes beyond this and identifies the embroidered story cloth
projects as serving as potential archives for the communities in which they are situated.
The embroidered story cloths produced by the Mogalakwena Craft Art Development
Foundation (MCADF) are considered as a relevant practical example of the counter-archival
discourse in the archival process. This Foundation is situated in a remote area of the
Limpopo Province, South Africa, close to the Botswana border. Founded in 1994 in an effort
to alleviate poverty and unemployment in this community, this project has grown into a
unique archive, which documents various aspects of the women’s everyday life.
This project encompasses a number of aspects highlighted by the counter-archival discourse.
The embroidered story cloths constitute archival sources that previously would not have been
considered part of the conventional nineteenth and twentieth century archive as they involve
oral tradition and material craft art practices. Furthermore, the choice of subjects
documented by the participants of the MCADF project, which include everyday life
situations, as well as rituals and rites of passage, moves the focus of history away from the
dated “grand narratives of progress” of the Western world to include the voices from outside
the political realm. This aligns with elements of the community archive which have an
important role to play in terms of democratising the archival record, decentralising the
archives as public institution as well as giving previously or currently marginalised people a
voice. In this case it is women who, due to their gender, their inability to express themselves
in written form and the previous discriminatory political dispensation in South Africa
(apartheid), would not have been included in traditional archives.