Coats of many colours: Dressing to defy erasure | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Coats of many colours: Dressing to defy erasure

Fashion, for many, is a form of self-expression, a statement about ourselves to the world. But for some, like the Southern Ndebele women of South Africa, what they protect and adorn their bodies with, has an even deeper meaning; it speaks to the heart of a marginalised person’s right to express their unique self-identity within a colonial society that threatened their very existence.

This question of “The garment as a cultural identity and creative expression” is being explored by UniSC PhD candidate, Heinke ‘Johanna’ Butt, whose experiences growing up in South Africa during Apartheid led her to become deeply interested in the issue of identity.

Born into an Afrikaans speaking family, when “being white came with privileges, coupled by an unwarranted sense of superiority and societal rights,” Heinke said it was a time of awakening and questioning of her own identity.

“As a teenager, I realised with utmost shock the world I’d grown up in was based on a total lie,” Heinke said.

A forbidden childhood friendship with her family’s black Ndebele ‘servant’, Miriam, became instrumental in Johanna’s interest in identity construction through the garment.

“When Miriam arrived at our house and put on her apron, I noticed her identity changed: she became the servant, and I became the ‘boss’ or superior.

“Growing up during Apartheid, I observed how individuals and groups changed their garments to create identity, to protest or to conform, to become part of a social or economic group, to become less visible, or to blend in a society in response to dominance.”

“I observed how people whom I saw suffering, changed their clothing, like chameleons trying to melt into a background, so as not to stand out. The horror of Apartheid and the issue of identity creation by individuals has been a recurring question I've had to contend with during different stages of my own life and it continues to be a focus in my art practice.”


Heinke has curated an exhibition of South African garments, based on her PhD research project, displayed at the Gympie Regional Art Gallery until 25 November. The exhibition, titled "Ndebele Women of South Africa - The garment as cultural identity and creative expression" focuses on this minority tribe originating from the Bantu-speaking people. She will be giving a talk about her research on November 18 at the Gympie Regional Gallery.

“During my childhood, I observed these women (from the Ndebele tribe) walking the streets of Pretoria and Johannesburg in their amazing colourful garments, as if to light up the streets,” she said.

“It was their response to the despair created by the Apartheid regime, an attempt to keep their cultural identity alive.”

Heinke said her PhD research is an extension of her art practice, which can be described as an “expression of cultural diversity and social communication utilising multi-media practices.”  

“During my research, I became aware that the act of creating art and garments is a deeply spiritual ritual for the Ndebele women, that stems from centuries of unthinkable hardship,” she said.

“My aim with this exhibition is to allow the viewer to step into the world of the Ndebele people, to hear their voices, to feel and see the garments, both historical and contemporary pieces. I aimed to give the Ndebele women a voice, not only for the academic audience, but to make it available for the public and to cross-cultural groups as an educational experience.”

Heinke is undertaking her PhD with UniSC's School of Law and Society, and the School of Business and Creative Industries, supervised by Dr Harriot Beazley, Dr Leah Barclay,  and Dr Sigiso Ndlovo.

Associate Professor Harriot Beazley said Heinke’s important research "illuminates the profound injustices endured by the Ndebele people during colonisation and apartheid in South Africa, and the determination of Ndebele women to maintain their cultural identity in the face of such adversity."

"Her wonderful exhibition displays the vibrant geometric designs on their houses and garments as powerful symbols of the Ndebele women’s resilience," Dr Harriot said.

"I encourage everyone to go and visit the Gympie Regional Art Gallery, you won’t be disappointed!"

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