AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

What is it with some white South Africans’ penchant for living in an a-historical bubble? Gumtree, the South African Craigslist, is running an ad for an apartment in Randburg, a former white suburb of Johannesburg (with about 30% black residents) to which only “young white professionals” are invited to apply; then people who should know better (journalists, researchers) think Apartheid wasn’t so bad after all. Now there’s a Cape Town company that–in the name of subversive “art”–designs products using a slave ship drawing from a 1788 abolitionist broadside (chances are you’ve seen it). Yes: a graphic of a slave ship packed with slaves, intended to depict the inhumanity of chattel slavery, is now printed on dresses, aprons and ironing boards (which they actually refer to as “slaving boards”).

Maid in Africa (a white-owned company in–where else?–Cape Town, South Africa) is a design studio run by a couple, Micha and Andrew Weir. They  “convert fine art into utility objects.”  The slave ship themed ironing/slaving board is intended evoke the ethos of the company: “Ebony & Irony, Aloe Africana and Boerewors on a Roll.” Their brand slogan for this particular range of products is “Slave to Fashion.” Why are they doing this? Because, according to their PR, “15 million African people displaced during the slave trade left a permanent imprint on the continent’s fabric.” 

The idea (design and premise) to put the slave slip on an ironing board is taken wholesale from a piece called ‘Stowage’ by the African-American artist Willie Cole in which he interprets the shape of an ironing board to be the shape of, possibly, a slave ship.  That piece (which looks identical to the Weirs “design”), was exhibited at MoMA and other major galleries, and received a lot of critical attention.

As Africa is a Country’s TO Molefe pointed out on Facebook:

Cole’s inspiration is that of a black artist reflecting on his own ancestry and the lived experiences of his mother and aunts. It’s a deeply personal reflection for him and thus a highly original concept, despite its origins in a historical image. These things in my view suggest that Cole’s treatment of The Brookes Ship has, since 1997, when he made the ship into an ironing board, filtered through news, word of mouth and in other ways to eventually end up as a Maid in Africa print stripped of its original context.

If you have time, go check out the comments on their Facebook page (as well as this thread), and see the Weirs defend their stupidity as some sort of antiracist activism. They are also condescending to their critics.

The moneymaker here is a combination of transgressive hipsterism with a reminder to powerful consumers that not only are they safe in their positions of power,  but that they are “helping.” (They trace their origins to helping to create work for a domestic worker who lost her job when her employees moved to Canada.)

What do the company’s owners say? On a Facebook post, where Molefe had a discussion thread going, Micha Weir jumped in and offered the following explanation:

[The drawing] came to epitomize the cruelties of the trade in enslaved Africans of the 18th and 19th centuries and the struggle to abolish that trade. Our intention by printing it on an everyday utility item, an ironing board, was to bring the fact of slavery closer to home …. It is a statement against denial and the moral high grounds attempt to white wash a society where the poor still slave for the rich. Our greedy consumer behaviour enslaves millions of people every day all over the world by buying designer t-shirts made in sweatshops, drinking Coke, consuming shit at MacDonald’s or flaunting our wealth at Woolworths. We are all “Slaves to Fashion”, enslaved by banks, trend setters or pure consumerism.

That’s rich.

So, when I buy some junk because the Kardashians say I should, am I in the same position as someone forced to wear a mouth bit, shacked to the floor of a ship for months? Or if I buy the stuff the Weirs have made (stuff I don’t need), I become more conscious of how my consumer habits help create indentured labour?

Who was it that said, recently, on Twitter “I hate it when people want to make a point by comparing x, y, z to either slavery or the Holocaust”? Yeah. That’s just the beginning of the point we want to make. Second, you just forced (the symbolic) bodies of people who already did the labour of creating your privilege to continue to do the labor of creating pathos and pity. Third, in  South Africa, who will be actually using that ironing board, looking at a historical representation of enslaved labourers? Not the madam who should be getting conscientized.  We wouldn’t put it past certain madams to actually buy such a ironing board cover, only to have their R100 ($10) a day plus lunch “domestic” spend the day in meditation over how their position in history hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot. (BTW, the label for the ironing board says “Hand wash in cold water (or ask the maid)”.)

On Facebook Molefe argued,

I really wish you [the Weirs] did not assume people objecting to your use of it were doing so from a place of ignorance to art history or the purpose of art. Even if some are, there are a genuine issues of making light of and money off of other people’s experiences that saying “but it’s art!” does not answer. If your intention is to question slavery and the domestication of black bodies with this print, and as a response the people whose lived experiences are of slavery and domestication are objecting, then you are doing it all wrong and clearly not listening.

You’d think all this would be obvious (hello, Weirs, black people are on the Internet and read art history).  Then to make things worse, they still had a stall at Cape Town’s annual Design Indaba. (This, BTW, is also an important part of the story: how a major design festival thinks it is okay to sanction and legitimize this.) Word is there was a petition to have them removed from the Indaba, but it seems they showed anyway as this picture taken by artist Athi-Patra Ruga shows:

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This being Cape Town and South Africa,the Weirs and Maid in Africa have no shortage of defenders. (They already do on the company’s Facebook page). There’s also a few others doing this kind of thing. Maid in Africa’s postcards, featuring shack-designs (no royalties there, either, it seems safe to assume), are marketed as a “celebration of free enterprise and free-range chicken,” and recall a similar stunt by Woolworths–the national retailer aimed at middle class shoppers of the tacky Mandela tribute.

A few aisles away from that shop’s Israeli tomatoes and the organic meats, you can buy Shack Box Soap. Yes, soap packaged to look like informal housing. One of the designers on Behance.com describes it as a “soap project that embraces the culture of South African Townships. Exploring the vibrant colours and juxtaposition of material to re-create a township experience.” Because, as someone commented on Facebook, nothing says ‘township experience’ like paying R50 (about $5 US) for a bar of soap.

Nice. These free enterprise models sure remind me of another group of people who took shit from some other people without asking and said they now owned it. Note to Maid in Africa: the people who actually came up with those shack designs might really celebrate if you gave them the percentage owed for appropriating and profiting from their intellectual property and design skills. Business partnerships: that’s real help. But putting an historical image of slaves on an ironing board (or on your dress) and commodifying pity isn’t.

Really people. We can’t anymore.

There is more to Lesotho than blankets, mountains and horse rides
Peter Clarke--In Memoriam
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9 thoughts on “The Cape Town company that designs and markets “slave ship” ironing boards and aprons

  1. I am one many people that commented on this on their facebook page, as well as sending a private email about my concerns about the product. This is the response I got (note that they did not get my sarcasm about designing a shack style soap box, following in the footsteps of woolworths ‘ethnic soap box’ collection. Their message was rude and very personal.

    Me: “Hi,
    There has been a huge amount of discussion around your product but little-no response from your company. If you claim to be a socially responsible company then I would ask, as I am sure, would all the people that continue to take issue with the social irresponsibility of your product, declare a public apology for the insensitivity of your marketing practices and the emotions that it has stirred.

    Ignoring the public, as a company in need of consumer support is in no way beneficial to you or your company. I think it is important to understand, whether or not you agree with, the opinions of the people critiquing your product and to be cognizant of the widespread negative effect/affect that it has had/is having. I think it is a big lesson about the (consumer-driven) desire to recuperate history without clearly and consciously thinking through its interpretive ramifications.
    March 3rd, 3:25pm”

    Maid in Africa: “There has been a huge amount of response from our side – check our wall. We did not respond to your comment because it seemed plain stupid and absurd to assume we are on the same page as Woolworths or other dirty businesses. Unlike you, we would never ever promote them. we are not a “company in need of consumers”. we are graphic designers doing concept art, probably too complicated for your consumer-driven mind. Thinking is what we do for a living, maybe you should give it a try”.

  2. where are the Dutch guys on this issue ?….atleast these are ur descendants who failed to do like thier grand uncles u sent across the Atlantic and to Australia.

  3. @nnm . Wow, thanks for sharing that. Viva la ‘everything goes art’ ( oh, and thinking for a living, obviously). Scandalous.

  4. @ Maria Hengeveld. super scandalous. I even left out the part when they told me to “put a shirt on” referencing the backless dress I happened to be wearing in my profile picture. But water under the bridge, this is really about a company that refuses to take ownership of the social irresponsibility of their product. I am happy to see this is gaining so much social traction. Great article.

  5. @nnm Agree. I think this even goes beyond social irresponsibility or willfull blindness. It seems related to that whole social entrepeneurship trend, which allows people to wrap any crappy middle-class or elite serving product in some ostensibly nobel ‘awareness’ wrap… and close the dialogue around it once the bow is done (and money pours in). A few weeks ago I witnessed someone present a ‘social enterprise’ to a crowd of elite international students. He argued that -as immigrants!- we all know how difficult it can be to travel the world and visit each other’s home countries (using skiing in the Swiss alps as example )… so his travel app would make this easier. Passed as a social enterprise (probably because he combined the words immigrant with app). BS. Again, thanks for sharing! M

  6. Can you please stop conflating ‘whites only’ apartheid apologists and misguided rich white liberals. It’s not just annoying – heaven forbid AIAC stop being annoying – it’s also analytically misleading.
    Thanks.

  7. this is why i largely ignore white people who haven’t already been pre-vetted. i don’t have time for it.

    ….which ties into one of the first things pointed out in the article [the bit about the rental in randburg]. most people i know who have put ads on gumtree looking for roommates have explicitly wanted a black roommate. and i’ve seen tons of other ads saying “south african only” — which basically means “no amakwerekwere” and *not* “no people with ‘good’ passports from somewhere in europe or the americas”. and i know more than one person looking for a room at this very moment who don’t want to live with west africans or congolese or zimbabweans … but want to live in my neighborhood, one in which most of the black people are west african or congolese or zimbabwean. so, sadly, we’re going to have to give the “whites only” rental advert a pass.

    but ya, the slave ship stuff… i guess i’m too engrossed in my own hustles to not have to deal with the white local public, despite living in fairly central neighborhood in cape town.

    however, with people like this, it’s not going to do much good to scream and holler at *them* on the internet. it will do nothing but cause them to hunker down, which it seems that they have done. it’s better to circle around them and starve them of income and leave them to struggle in their hippie orania. screaming at them, and feeding the troll…. often doesn’t work.

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