Basotho blanket exhibition a rich tapestry of history and culture

The Basotho blanket collection at the Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville

The Basotho blanket collection at the Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville

Published Mar 29, 2024


Sutha ke Fete means “make way so I may pass” in Sotho; an invitation to make way for an imagined passer-by, wrapped in a richly decorated heritage blanket.

This is the title of the first exhibition of the iconic Basotho blankets in the Western Cape, presented by Sanlam in collaboration with the National Museum in Bloemfontein.

Showcasing the unique and engaging designs of traditional and contemporary Basotho Blankets, the exhibition runs until June 14 at the Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville, before moving to Sanlam’s Art Lounge in Sandton, Johannesburg, for Heritage Month.

With exquisite heritage blankets on loan from the National Museum, along with 26 Basotho blankets from the Sanlam Art Collection, including Aranda’s Young Basotho Designer range, the exhibition celebrates the stories depicted by the blankets.

Karl Socikwa, Sanlam Group Executive: Market Development, said, “Basotho blankets have become iconic markers of Basotho identity. They’re enduring works of art which are meant to be worn.

“Every unique design tells a story, while weaving together an overarching commentary on the political, cultural and economic development of our nation.

“We’re proud to be holding the first-ever exhibition of these cultural icons outside of the Oliewenhuis Art Museum showing in Bloemfontein in 2014.

“It’s an honour to be showing such a comprehensive collection, bolstered by loans of never-before-seen blankets from private collections.”

The blankets hold a rich tapestry of history, branching back about 160 years to when they were first manufactured in mills in England’s Yorkshire, before winding their way to the Cape of Good Hope, Port Elizabeth and then on to Leribe and the other mountainous districts of Basutoland (now Lesotho).

They tell intertwining tales of Africa and England, and clothiers and early capitalism.

The patterns were made possible by the invention of the Jacquard weaving machine during the British Industrial Revolution. Missionaries first brought blankets to King Moshoeshoe’s nation in 1845.

English traders then established trading posts to meet demand, and began developing new designs, in collaboration with their customers.

To date, the blankets have been part of Basotho culture for over a century, with the original “Victoria England” designs enduring for generations; these will be displayed at the exhibition.

They will be joined by a collection of 10 blankets from Aranda’s Young Basotho Designers range, commissioned in 2022.

Recently young designers like Thabo Makhetha Kwinana have used traditional blankets to produce garments and accessories which have become high street fashion in South Africa and internationally.

Basotho blankets were a key feature in the movie Blank Panther, which brought recognition of this cultural icon to viewers across the globe.

Stefan Hundt, Curator of the Sanlam Art Collection, said the blankets on display comprise rare wool heritage blankets, with beautiful traditional blankets made by Aranda, the sole manufacturer still in business today.

“We look forward to welcoming you to a memorable exhibition that celebrates the rich history and heritage of Basotho blankets and the shared stories they represent.

“Every big moment in Basotho people’s lives is marked with a blanket. The blankets symbolise life itself; new life, shared life and the end of life. We are deeply privileged to be able to share in these stories.

“Sanlam is committed to empowering all Africans to be financially confident, secure, and prosperous. A big part of this means understanding and respecting our shared histories.

“Living with confidence means knowing our stories so that we can protect the things that matter the most for generations to come.”

The exhibition runs until 14 June at the Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville. Opening hours are Monday to Friday, from 09:00 to 16:30.

For more information and to arrange a tour of the exhibition at the Sanlam Art Collection, contact Stefan Hundt on [email protected] or via WhatsApp: 083 457 2699, or call 021 947 3359.

Entry to the exhibition is free.

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