Art, gender ideology and Afrikaner nationalism : a history of the Voortrekker Monument tapestries

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This dissertation considers the role both verbal and visual culture played in the growth and articulation of Afrikaner nationalism. For this reason it focuses not only on the central topic under discussion, namely the Voortrekker tapestries, but also on the discourses that informed the production of these tapestries and the circumstances surrounding the decision to commission them. The Voortrekker tapestries were commissioned in 1952 by the Vrou-en Moederbeweging van die A1XV (Suid-Afrikaanse Spoorweё en Hawens) and presented to the Voortrekker Monument in 1960. It was decided that the tapestries should depict the Great Trek of 1838 and, due to his widely acclaimed status as an authority on visual representations of Afrikaner history and culture, the artist WH Coetzer was approached to be the designer of the tapestries. But Coelzer's version of the Great Trek of 1838 perpetuates many popular myths about the Afrikaner past and, in examining this version, I have identified certain discourses as being influential. For example, the role of Gustav Preller in the formation of Coetzer's historical consciousness; the precedent set by the 1938 centenary celebrations of the Great Trek for later verbal and visual depictions of the Great Trek; the period 1948 to 1952, marked by significant historical events such as the triumph of the National Party, the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument and the tercentenary Van Riebeeck celebrations and, finally, the rolevolksmoeder ideology played in shaping Coetzer's vision of the Great Trek. Drawing on these discourses, I proceed to examine the iconography of the Voortrekker tapestries. A number of themes in the tapestries are identified and elucidated with reference to a range of contemporary theoretical writings. Finally, the dissertation moves beyond a consideration of the iconography of the tapestries, investigating instead the status of needlework. I argue that the gender ideology embedded in the production of the tapestries is parallel1ed in the historically sanctioned separation of 'art' from 'craft'. Just as 'craft' has been marginalised in relation to 'art', so the Voortrekker tapestries and, with them, the women who made the tapestries, were marginalised in the public spheres which were inhabited and controlled by Afrikaner men.

Bibliography: pages 112-119.