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Earlier this year I had the privilege of digitising a fabulous collection from The Slave Lodge at Iziko Museums of Cape Town for the Google Cultural Institute. IsiShweshwe has come to be identified with high-brow indigenous South African fashion. The pattered cloth has been used for centuries in southern Africa at every level of society and a wide variety of applications. Yet the tradition of the cloth has its origins in East Asia and came to Africa via Europe as part of the colonial project. The story of isiShweshwe then, is the story of cultural cooption, adaptation and innovation – of remixing and remaking.

Ohorokweva onde (dress) worn by Hereo women. Windhoek, Namibia, 2005. Fabric: Chaka Chaka, producer unknown. Juliette Leeb-du Toit Collection, Iziko Soc Hist. 16

Ohorokweva onde (dress) worn by Hereo women. Windhoek, Namibia, 2005. Fabric: Chaka Chaka, producer unknown. Juliette Leeb-du Toit Collection, Iziko Soc Hist. 16

It was a privilege to be approached by the Google Cultural Institute to take on this task. We had worked together in the past when African Media Online became the only non-not-for-profit partner in the Google History Project (which says something about our status as a social enterprise) creating galleries of content to showcase significant moments in South African history. We had been in discussion over some years about various potential digitisation projects, but nothing had ever materialized until this.

Dress of Indian chintz, probably made at the Cape. Note the use of the indigo in some of the floral sprigs. Coromandel Coast, India, c.1775. The Indian method of applying designs on to cotton was complicated, and included the application of various coats of resist paste (in this case, beeswax) and mordants, alternated with dippings into madder red or indigo blue dyebaths, and a final  direct application of yellow dye where needed. Presented by Marianne Pfeiffer, Iziko Soc Hist. L67/153

Dress of Indian chintz, probably made at the Cape. Note the use of the indigo in some of the floral sprigs. Coromandel Coast, India, c.1775. The Indian method of applying designs on to cotton was complicated, and included the application of various coats of resist paste (in this case, beeswax) and mordants, alternated with dippings into madder red or indigo blue dyebaths, and a final direct application of yellow dye where needed. Presented by Marianne Pfeiffer, Iziko Soc Hist. L67/153

It was not an insignificant undertaking. I needed to be on-site in Cape Town. Fortunately I did not need to ship all my equipment as Cine Photo Tools, from whom we purchase our Broncolor lights, was just around the corner and was able to provide the lights, stands and backdrops I needed. It also involved quite a team of Iziko staff to organise ahead of time and assist with bringing the materials to me in the Slave Lodge. The Iziko staff also had to assist with metadata post shoot. Fortunately I knew Paul Tichmann from his time at the Luthuli Museum here in KZN and I knew Tessa Davids from her time at Western Cape Museum Services with whom we had worked to do a digitisation project some years ago. It also took a team from the Google Cultural Institute itself, particularly in getting the project going and when it came to getting the content online and curated online.

Jacket and trousers. Made and purchased in Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2009. Fabrics include Da Gama 'Three Leopards' and 'Six Star Toto.' Juliette Leeb-du Toit Collection, Iziko Soc Hist. 38

Jacket and trousers. Made and purchased in Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2009. Fabrics include Da Gama ‘Three Leopards’ and ‘Six Star Toto.’ Juliette Leeb-du Toit Collection, Iziko Soc Hist. 38

It also involved significant creativity to capture a range of materials in a way that would showcase the range and quality of the collection on the Google Arts & Culture digital platform. As it turned out it was not just the isiShweshwe collection, but we ended up capturing aspects of four distinct cultural collections. Fortunately I had help from photographer and digital curation student Sarah Schäfer who had been referred by Google. It was a pleasure to work with someone so enthusiastic.

Dress of Indian chintz on loan from Iziko Museums of Cape Town in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as part of their Goede Hoop: South Africa and The Netherlands from 1600 exhibition. Soon after I captured the dress, it was shipped off to Amsterdam. It was wonderful to come across it while I was there in May at a conference at the Rijksmuseum.

Dress of Indian chintz on loan from Iziko Museums of Cape Town in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as part of their Goede Hoop: South Africa and The Netherlands from 1600 exhibition. Soon after I captured the dress, it was shipped off to Amsterdam. It was wonderful to come across it while I was there in May at a conference at the Rijksmuseum.

In the end the hard work all paid off. The four collections have been curated in four exhibits as part of the wider We Wear Culture project. And the client was thrilled. When she received the pictures Agata Wieczorowska, Cultural Institute Coordinator, Google Cultural Institute said: “I absolutely loved the pictures! From the artistic point of view, the pictures are amazing and the artifacts themselves are really unique!” So that was a plus for both our work and for Iziko’s work in collecting and curating the material. And our Phase One IQ3 100 digital sensor with XF Camera and Broncolor lights produced outstanding results. Agata was blown away by how much detail was in the full size images. And the wonderful thing is that you can take a look yourself and zoom right in to that fine detail (by clicking on the links below, and then as you scroll through by double clicking on the images):

Fabric, Fashion and Identity – The Story of IsiShweshwe
Kalahari Skin Bags
Tobacco Bags from the Eastern Cape
Beadwork from Southern Africa

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