Recently awarded 'Best New Talent' by Monocle, Sweden-based South African textile designer Nkuli Mlangeni-Berg on her unique collaborations with other African designers and her tremendous love for weaving.
Weaving is one of the oldest practices in textile production. Expertly interlacing yarns, over a loom, to produce a variety of fabrics is something South African designer Nkuli Mlangeni-Berg knows all too well. The recent recipient of Monocle's "Best New Talent" award, Mlangeni-Berg's love for the African continent, its burgeoning textile industry and the empowerment of its artisans is at the fore. Succinctly put, she's putting African designers in the textiles realm on the map.
Born and bred in Kagiso, Krugersdorp — and now based in one of the world's elite design hubs, Sweden — Mlangeni-Berg is currently on a mission to channel back the resources at her disposal to fellow designers across the African continent. Collaboration, something she values extensively, is at the heart of her craft.
The beauty of her childhood experiences, her Zulu-Ndebele roots and love for South Africa often inspire Mlangeni-Berg's unique creations. In 2017, the designer's Sankara Rug, which referenced the popular Ndebele patterns and traditional reed dance, was named the "Most Beautiful Object in South Africa" by Design Indaba – a remarkable accomplishment for the then upcoming designer.
Mlangeni-Berg is a huge advocate of weaving the past and future together, as well as connecting the old with the contemporary. We caught up with her to discuss being a multi award-winning designer, her current projects and grand hopes for Africa's textile design space.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does being awarded Monocle's Best New Talent mean to you at this stage of your career?
I think more than anything, it's cool to be acknowledged on an international scale because I'm relatively new in that space. I'd mostly made moves back at home in South Africa. I view this accolade as somewhat of a nod that I'm on the right path. It's great to be seen and recognised. As you can imagine, it hasn't been a very easy year — everyone's been going through a lot. This Best New Talent award has given me the motivation to keep going.
On that note, how have you been navigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your work?
Luckily, I've always worked virtually. The artisans I work with — at the two weaveries I'm linked to — are a small group of women in a rural setting. In terms of COVID-19 health and safety protocols, they were able to continue working. Our production wasn't affected much. In terms of buyers, I think a lot of people are a bit insecure about consuming stuff in times of uncertainty. With job losses on the rise, it hasn't been an easy time for sales. I do, however, think that things are getting better now.
Sankara Rug, "Most Beautiful Item"Still taken via Design Indaba YouTube video.
Let's talk about the Ndebele pattern in your work. What about it struck you so much that it became a key design feature in your rugs?
The Ndebele pattern featured prominently in the first collection. However, we have since evolved and are trying out different things. Both my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother are Ndebele. At home, we speak a combination of Ndebele and Zulu. I guess the project was about paying homage to growing up surrounded by the Ndebele culture, but never really giving it much recognition until it started making waves internationally. I think it also says a lot about our appreciation of ourselves, who we are and how we take these things for granted when we're younger.
I took so many things for granted and, now, when I look back I'm like, "Oh, wow! Why didn't I appreciate that when I was younger?" I could have learned so much if I had spent more time with my Ndebele grandmother instead of thinking, "Oh, what the hell is that?" The initial collection was my graduate project and, then, I was curious about working with a concept that originated from the African continent.
Some of Nkuli Mlangeni-Berg's work. Image supplied.
In terms of your design studio and collaborative platform The Ninevites, what led you to set it up? Do you think there are enough design sites and studios like yours — in South Africa at least?
There are a few. There's Thabiso Mjo of Mash T. Designs. There's also The Herd, and a few other people who are doing really cool stuff. The Ninevites was initially set up as my hobby project. I wanted to dabble in fashion in a way that I preferred and found comfortable. The Ninevites' founding principle was for it to be an alternative space where I could do the things I liked. It has since evolved and is now employing people and is recognised on an international scale.
In South Africa specifically, we've got a good number of fashion designers being recognised on international platforms — so, I'd say we're doing well on that front. When it comes to interior design, however, we're still not there yet. More and more people are breaking into interior design but, sadly, it's still not a big space for Black people.
The weaving process in action. Image supplied.
Do you have plans of making the art and textile industries accessible to other young people who currently view it as intimidating or classist?
Together with six other South African designers, we've started a collective called South African Designers and Artisans Imbizo. Oftentimes, we wait on big institutions to help make things happen for us. We've decided to flip the script and, now, want to do things on our own. I am hosting an exhibition, here in Sweden, at the end of May where all those designers from our collective will be showcasing their work. The exhibition will be part of a bigger design event called Southern Sweden Design Days. Their work will also be retailed, in Sweden, for a month. We're in the process of figuring out a lot of things, but the main aim is to reach a place where we have ownership of our work, help promote designers and artisans internationally and ensure everyone gets paid what they're worth — sans any exploitation.
There's another project that I recently did through my studio, a magazine called Lesela. Lesela, a Sesotho/Setswana word meaning fabric, is about profiling textile artists from the African continent. It was done through a project called Telling Tales, which involves three African textile designers — myself included. I worked with an all-female creative team, in South Africa, which included Lebogang Tlhako (Sista Bozza), Alexis Rose and Noncedo Gxekwa – all photographers. Collaboration is the essence of my studio. In all my projects, I always try to collaborate with really awesome people from Africa. I'm now Sweden-based and have access to resources that I'd like to channel back to the continent.
'Lesela' magazine. Image supplied.
You've obviously done a lot of collaborative work. Are there still any African designers that you're keen to work with, or whose work you admire?
Oh, of course. I love Zohra Opoku's work in Ghana. I absolutely admire and love Malawian artist Billie Zangewa's work. I would love to spend time with the women in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) who make the textiles and clothing for the Shembe Church. One of my other dreams would be to return home for a few months and spend time interning with basket weavers and beaders in rural parts of KZN. I'd also love to visit Senegal. There are some really cool projects coming out of there. There's an amazing young woman by the name ofJohanna Bramble who runs a Dakar-based hand weaving studio. I hope to someday get a nice grant so I can travel across Africa for a year, just interning.
On the subject of remaining your authentic self, while also being on a predominantly Eurocentric international stage, what keeps you grounded?
I have so much respect and love for where I come from — remembering how I grew up helps with this. South Africa's history is quite challenging. It's crazy and so wild that we are a deeply scarred nation with so many amazing people. On the one hand, you're like, "Oh my God, I love this country so much!" And on the other you have scourges like crime, corruption and gender-based violence that make you go, "Oh my, this country is so sad and messed up!" However, there's something to be said about South Africa's sense of community and the people. I think about where I come from, the streets of Kagiso, my grandmother's home, my people, downtown Joburg, the love and the hate — I carry that with me wherever I go.