Zulu baskets take center stage at La Jolla gallery

By Erika Ostroff


A collection of skillfully and lovingly woven baskets made by the women from Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa, are for show and sale at the Africa and Beyond gallery, 1250 Prospect St. in La Jolla, through June 30.

Under the title “Balancing Act,” the Ukhamba-style collection of baskets has brought world fame to the Zulu women, known for carrying the baskets on their heads.

“We inherently all try to live balanced lives, but this exhibit is to pay homage to the Zulu women who balance everything in their lives — from children to basket weaving and beyond,” gallery owner Ian Allen said.

Proceeds from basket sales will go toward perpetuating the Zulu women’s independence while they keep the vibrant beauty of their culture alive.

According to Allen, it can take up to four months to craft a basket, which is made from the Ilala palm. The baskets are woven watertight, and were originally created to store home-brewed beer. When a liquid is poured into the basket, the pores of the palm swell, the outside sweats, and the liquid is kept cool by the process of evaporation. However, there is more than pure practicality behind their story.

Each basket has a unique shape, size and color. Since the original hue of the Ilala palm is cream, berries, barks, petals and roots of indigenous vegetation are used to create colored dyes to vary the beauty.

Also, the intricate patterns on each basket have meanings. A series of diamonds represents a feminine basket, a series of triangles indicates a masculine basket, and a pattern of small squares represents a celebration of fruitfulness.

Additionally, Africa and Beyond is showcasing a fair-trade project that features a new form of Zulu basket weaving made from telephone wires. The Zulu women are given the multicolored wires from phone companies, and in turn they create intricately woven, colorful baskets.

The Africa and Beyond gallery features contemporary and traditional African artifacts. The inventory ranges from ceremonial masks to decorative statues and tribal beadwork. Each year, the gallery focuses on art from a different area of Africa, south of the Sahara, to showcase the diversity in the cultures and traditions of the people.

Zimbabwe native Ian Allen and his wife, Julie, opened the gallery in 1989. As a student, Allen studied African anthropology. He said he decided that the richness of the African culture would best be transmitted through the art of the people. He began travels back to Africa to handpick the fine pieces exhibited in the gallery.