It’s been worn by Xhosa-speaking women at ceremonies and celebrations. It’s been exhibited in museums and repurposed by fashion houses. It’s even been used as a symbol of defiance in moments of resistance during political trials. But there’s surprisingly little substantial research on umbhaco - a situation University of the Western Cape (UWC) researcher Bongiwe Hlekiso aims to rectify.
“Umbhaco is far from being merely a museum object,” she said. “It often forms part of narratives amongst Xhosa-speakers and comes to be fixed in meaning - which is actually the crux of my project: that this garment is not fixed, but it evolves and changes with time.”
Hlekiso is a doctoral student at the Department of History at UWC and the recipient, along with fellow UWC researcher, Robert Uys, of the 2021 Ivan Karp Doctoral Research Award from the African Critical Inquiry Programme - a partnership between UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research and the Laney Graduate School of Emory University in Atlanta.
“Receiving this award is an incredible honour,” she said. “It’s such a gratifying recognition towards my project - not just my work but also towards the work of other individuals who are recipients of this award. And it means that I have been given an opportunity that allows me to be able to conduct my research without financial worries. I’m going to make the most of it.”
The Ivan Karp Awards support African doctoral students in the humanities and humanistic social sciences enrolled at South African universities. That support will allow Hlekiso to do significant research for her dissertation, Becoming a Hidden Treasure: A Biography of Umbhaco and its Interrupted Trajectories.
“This project is about seeking and tracing biographies of umbhaco, a skirt that is mainly worn by Xhosa-speaking women when getting married, attending ceremonies, and on other special celebratory occasions,” Hlekiso explained. “I will examine the multifaceted use of umbhaco in and beyond the spaces of the museum and these other imaginations of tradition, examining the making of umbhaco by different producers and what stories are told through its making.”
Hlekiso will locate the item within exhibits and displays in museums and art galleries within South Africa, and explore the histories it represents in these spaces. In doing so, she will provide a historical foundation to rewrite the original label of umbhaco that was located at the Hidden Treasures exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG) from August 2017 to January 2020.
She will also examine the histories of umbhaco and the different biographies of the producers, sellers, and wearers, and their associations with this garment. Additionally, she will explore how the umbhaco has become a commodity by looking at the different makers and sellers of the skirt.
“I will also interview producers, distributors and wearers of umbhaco to analyse the various narratives around its diverse uses. Becoming a Hidden Treasure will interrogate the garment as a cultural commodity and how different and changing meanings and values are placed on it.”
Bongiwe Hlekiso: A History Of History
Hlekiso chose this topic because little substantial research has been conducted about the garment, unlike other African textiles (like Isishweshwe and the Aso ebi cloth)
“I am drawn to the multifaceted use of umbhaco beyond the use of the cultural aspect, and also how umbhaco evolves. For that reason, it pushes me to further interrogate umbhaco in different spaces such as the museum, art galleries, and fashion.”
And of course, there are more personal reasons. The youngest in a family of seven, raised by a single mother, the garment played an important role in her upbringing in Beaufort West.
“Growing up, my mother wore one and different women in my community adorned umbhaco during ceremonies like weddings and initiation celebrations. I knew a little bit of history about umbhaco from my background, and that aroused a desire in me to know more about its history, and how it came to be worn by AmaXhosa.”
That same desire to know more about the past led her to UWC, where she completed her undergraduate, Honours and Masters degrees.
“The Department of History at UWC is one of the best in the country, and our lecturers are amongst the best in their fields. Their experience and expertise gives us more than just confidence to do well. They are able to bring the best out of us and they push us constantly to do our best. I hope this project will prove their work hasn’t been in vain.”