Hall of fame | Amita Makan

"I am an artist. I paint and embroider to express myself," says Amita Makan, who was a runner up in the Sasol New Signatures competition in 2009. 

Port Elizabeth-born Makan has an MA degree in International Relations from Rhodes University and a Diploma in Gender Policy and Planning from UCL University College London. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions locally and abroad. Makan has been the recipient of a number of international residencies including the Artist Residence Programme at the Centre for World Exposition of Arts and Culture in Hyderabad, India (2010), In 2014, she headed to France for a stint at Cité International des Arts in Paris.

Her work is featured in the collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Unisa, the University of Pretoria, the Edoardo Villa Museum, the South African Reserve Bank and the Chowmahallah Palace in India. 

Ten years on since her Sasol New Signatures award, we caught up with her.

You credit your heritage for influencing your work. Tell us about your materials such as swatches of silk and silken threads, sequins and crystals and ribbons worked together on fabric...

Embroidery is an integral part of my great grandparents’ Gujarati culture. My Gujerati female ancestors would have embroidered. My paternal great grandfather was from the Shudra or shoemaking caste. He was a cobbler and used stitches to fashion cow hides into sandals and shoes.     

Reflecting on your success in Sasol New Signatures in 2009, can you quantify what impact this had in launching your career as an artist?                                                 

 Winning this prestigious competition helped launch my art career and opened many doors and opportunities since then. The Sasol New Signatures competition prides itself on encouraging the artist to push boundaries and to be fearless in their preferred medium. It was an honour to be awarded the Sasol New Signatures Runner up prize in 2009. I have been associated with hand embroidered art since winning the prize and embroidery has become my “voice.                                                                                                             

How did recognition in Sasol New Signatures allow you to further tell your story?              

Since winning the award, I have gained confidence in my art and medium, and have gone on to delve further into the history of embroidery and deepen my love for embroidery. I have found that this art form is part of my DNA. I have been able to explore my Indian ancestral stories, personal, autobiographical stories, stories from the South African archive and stories about wider socio-political and environmental challenges in an uneven globalizing world.             

We have seen numerous women win this competition - why do you think that is?    

Simply because women can be outstanding artists and demand our attention and recognition. South Africa is evolving and there are windows of opportunities for women to enter the art world that remains male-dominated. Sasol New Signatures is a powerful platform to raise the profile of women artists. I admire the competition for not imposing age restrictions which can also restrict women. Looking at the selection of finalists and winners, it is evident that Sasol New Signatures values art made by women.

Since your accolade in 2009, you have notched up a number of achievements...what have been the most memorable?                                                                                          

 I have had solo exhibitions in South Africa and in Switzerland, and I have participated in many group shows locally and internationally since 2009. In 2014 I was excited to participate in "Nomalungelo: Threads to Freedom" at the Constitution Hill in Johannesburg which was curated by Brenton Maart and my first European solo show with the Rosa Turetsky Gallery in Switzerland in 2016. I was honoured to exhibit at the Dakar Biennale in 2018, showcasing contemporary art from the African continent and its diaspora in an exhibition entitled ‘The Red Hour’ curated by Simon Njami. I was thrilled to exhibit in the same space with some of the giants of African art including El Anatsui, Hassan Musa and Ndary Lo.                       

Your pieces King Protea and Sunyata address the global plight of pollution from plastic - explain your motivation.                                                                                         

In my work, I am drawn to the memory of landscape and mindful of the impact of everyday living on our earth. I reflect on South Africa’s rare and endangered Cape Floral ‘Fynbos’ kingdom. King Protea and Sunyata (The Full Void) II are two multifarious mixed media works, odes to these ancient and increasingly threatened floral kingdom. The floral artworks are recreated from recycled ubiquitous, environmentally damaging plastic waste.              

You raise the profile of the endangered Golden Butterflies with your work entitled Vasant II. Can you describe this for us?                                                                           

Vasant II documents a surreal and transitory moment of the convergence of a swarm of golden butterflies in the arid Kalahari in Southern Africa. This suspended moment of the butterflies has been hand embroidered on silk organza with silk, viscose and metallic threads as well as repurposed non-degradable yellow nylon packaging material. This work is part of a series of the Southern African butterflies drawing attention to the plight of these endangered creatures.                                                                                                         

You speak to climate change and global water scarcity with Water Mantra, 2018. How did you get involved with these issues?                                                                            

In 2018, I was invited by curator Adelina vön Furstenberg of the Art for The World (a non government organisation associated with the United Nations in Geneva) to participate in an exhibition entitled Aqua/Water in Italy. The exhibition sought to raise awareness of increasing water scarcity resulting from climate change. My artwork Water Mantra 2018 was prompted by the severe drought in the Cape at the time. Water Mantra is an embroidery of my hands cupped - a universal gesture to receive water but also a gesture for begging and prayer.                                                                                                                                

What advice do you have for other artists young or old wanting to make their career as an artist?                                                                                                                           

To be undeterred and relentless in their passion.


About Amita Makan's Sasol New Signatures winning work
Written by Cate Terblanche, Art Curator, Sasol Art Collection


Amita 2

Artwork: Amita Makan, Loose Ends: A Story About My Mother (2009). Photographs by James Fox, courtesy of the artist.

In a rather unusual turn, the judges chose the embroidered portrait of the artist’s mother as the runner-up for the 2009 Sasol New Signatures competition.  This work by Amita Makan is a poignant depiction of a journey into grief and loss.  Embroidery and related fibre arts have historically often been classified with the crafts, but since around the 1960s and 70s, these have increasingly become a medium of choice, especially for feminist artists, as a comment on gender and sexuality. 

Using silk threads, Makan painstakingly built up the image of her mother who eventually succumbed to the harrowing devastation that Alzeheimer’s disease inflicts not only on the person affected, but on the whole family.   Makan’s use of embroidery, while closely associated with acts of femininity, becomes a metaphor for the systematic unravelling of a person’s personality, their relationships, their memory, and ultimately their physical being.   In the 2009 exhibition, the work was displayed with both sides visible to the viewer.  On the front, an impeccably embroidered portrait of artist’s mother as a young woman, and on the reverse a vague jumbled confusion of loose threads creating a rather fuzzy memory of the once vibrant woman. 

The very act of trying to contain the memory of a loved one in a portrait is simultaneously an act of memorialising and grieving, trying to remember and trying to hard not to forget, threading your way through the process of mourning. The title of the work Loose Ends: A Story About My Mother implies that this process is never quite dealt with, but rather that it is a continuous process of weaving sorrow and memories together.  In a way this portrait has become a ‘new memory’ in itself, a new memory associated with the person, but also with the act of creating, as well as a memory associated with the competition.   In an email to the curator, the artist states:

“The year 2019 stitches together three profound and inseparable moments in my life. 2019 marks the tenth year of my dear mother’s passing. It is also ten years since I first started embroidery - I embroidered a portrait of my mother called Loose Ends: A Story About My Mother, for which I was awarded runner up in the Sasol New Signatures Runner-up award in 2009.”

Makan often uses saris worn by her mother in her embroideries, carefully unravelling the threads into single strands with which to create ‘new’ images, or cutting the fabric into smaller pieces, both acts becoming part of the metaphor.  The threads infer mortality, a continuity of life, the transfer of DNA from one generation to another, but also the traumatic manner in which life can be terminated as with the cutting of a thread.  The resulting portrait successfully weaves aspects of portraiture and embroidery as medium into a sensitive comment about grief and loss.