Note: This continuing series reposts some of the most memorable columns of Suzy’s Fancy, which ran from 2009-2020. This piece originally ran in September 2010.
Not too long ago, I saw a small appliquéd wallhanging with the intriguing name of African Love Potion. I’ve always been a sucker for a story, and this little quilt used a series of six pictorial panels to colorfully illustrate a tale of marital discord with a happy ending. I was hooked—I had to have it
It was only after I bought the wallhanging that I realized there was a folded scrap of ruled tablet paper tucked into a pocket in the last panel. The paper contained a description of each scene, handwritten in pencil. Captivated, I was determined to learn more about it. The place at which the piece was purchased told me only that it was “Weya” appliqué.
So began my pursuit for information about Weya appliqué, with the internet and Google providing the keys to unlock the mystery. I learned that Weya is a rural area of Zimbabwe where extreme poverty is the norm, AIDS affects one in four adults, and women are often the heads of households. In the late 1980s, the German Volunteer Service asked art teacher Ilse Noy to develop an economic assistance project to help Weya women become financially self-sufficient.
Noy, knowing that the Weya women already had needlework skills, came up with the idea of teaching them to make items that could be sold to tourists, among which were narrative, pictorial wallhangings similar to the one I purchased. At its inception, the Weya Textile Project worked with nine women. Today, hundreds of women make such pieces and their work is shown and sold throughout the world. Ilse Noy went on to write a book about the project entitled The Art of the Weya Women.
Noy encouraged the women to depict stories or themes that reflected their own lives and experiences. Many of the pieces show everyday domestic duties, such as grinding corn to make cornmeal, brewing beer, or caring for children. Others illustrate beliefs and attitudes, and deal with such topics as marriage, relationships, sexuality, death, ancestors, spirits, and desires.
The project (and its offshoots) has generated the same sort of controversy that surrounds most ethnic art produced directly for the tourist trade—namely that originality and true artistic merit are sacrificed to a production line approach.
I was dismayed to find that the piece I purchased was not signed, and the description did not include the artist’s name, an omission that lends weight to such criticism. However, by all accounts, the appliqué pieces have generated much-needed income, with a byproduct of self-esteem for the women who make them.
With the controversy in mind, I looked at my little wallhanging afresh. It still charms me, and I think about the anonymous (to me) woman who made it, knowing that it helped her provide for herself and her family. That’s not so different from so many of our quilting foremothers who plied their needles with the main purpose of providing warm cover and who, nevertheless, managed to express their artistic talents as well.