Sutha ke Fete: The art of the Basotho blanket 

Sutha ke Fete means “make way so I may pass” in Sesotho – an invitation to make way for an imagined passerby, wrapped in a richly decorated heritage blanket.

This is the title of the first-ever exhibition in the Western Cape of the globally iconic Basotho blankets, 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 will run from 20 March to 14 June 2024 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 of the blankets that have become an iconic brand identity of a nation.

Karl Socikwa, Sanlam group executive of Market Development, says: “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 icons of a nation

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 of the blankets were made possible by the invention of the Jacquard weaving machine – one of the earliest examples of computation – 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, such as the famed Seanamarena blanket.

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, such as Thabo Makhetha Kwinana, have used traditional blankets to produce garments and accessories that have become high-street fashion in South Africa and internationally. Basotho blankets were a key feature in the movie Black Panther, which brought recognition of this cultural icon to viewers across the globe.

Blankets on exhibition

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

He adds, “We look forwarding to welcoming you to a memorable exhibition that celebrates the rich history and heritage of Basotho blankets and the shared stories they represent. They interweave political commentary and individual expression, with science, industry and innovation. More importantly, they’re an integral part of the fabric of Basotho culture.

“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 from 20 March to 14 June at the Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville. Opening hours are Monday to Friday, from 09h00 to 16h30. Entry to the exhibition is free.

For more information and to arrange a tour of the exhibition at the Sanlam Art Collection, contact Stefan Hundt via email sanlamart@sanlam.co.za or via WhatsApp: 083 457 2699, or call 021 947 3359.

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