Amita Makan is an artist who wields a needle as skillfully as she uses a paintbrush. This is evident in the embroidered portrait, Loose Ends: A Story about my Mother, featured above. Makan has exhibited her beautifully detailed work in several solo and group exhibitions in South Africa and internationally. Her art can be found in many collections including The South African Reserve Bank, The Eduardo Villa Museum, University of Kwazulu Natal, University of Pretoria, and the Luciano Bennetton Collection. In 2009, she was a runner up in the Sasol New Signatures National Art Competition and has subsequently attended artist residencies in India, Paris and Sweden. This year she represented South Africa at the 13th Biennale of Contemporary Art – Dak Art 2018- in Dakar.
Amita Makan was born in Port Elizabeth and remembers having an instinctive affinity for drawing and painting as a child. However, she chose to study English and Political Science obtaining a Masters Degree in International Relations at Rhodes University in 1993. While living and working in Geneva, her interest in art resurfaced and she began taking art classes. When Makan returned to South Africa, she completed the first year of a BA Fine Art degree at University of Pretoria in 2003. She continued to do additional art courses until 2014. She currently lives and works in Geneva, Switzerland.
Amita Makan uses her work to explore the traditions and culture of her Gujerati heritage and identity within a broader South African and global context. She also uses the meditative qualities of embroidery and painting to deal with grief and loss. In her exhibition titled ‘Evanesence’ she examines how her mother deteriorated from a vibrant, elegant woman, as Alzheimers affected her memory and physical abilities, to someone who was confused and bedridden.
In My Mother-1970, Makan painted a photorealistic image of her mother from an old photograph showing her dressed in her customary sari and traditional jewellery. In the featured image above titled Loose Ends, she does a similar portrait using embroidery as a medium. Makan believes that needlework is very much a part of her heritage. She states:
“Embroidery is an integral part of my great grandparents’ Gujerati culture. My Gujerati female ancestors would have embroidered. My…great grandfather was from the..shoe making caste. He used stitches to fashion..hides into sandals and shoes.”
The Loose Ends refer not just to the threads that are left to trail off below the portrait but to the unravelling of her mother as a person who slowly lost her ability to read, write, eat and care for herself. The ‘loose ends’ could also refer to the ‘unfinished’ relationship Makan had with her mother who could no longer recognise her family or speak to them. During the 12 year period of her mother’s illness, Makan began to photograph and paint her as a way of preserving her memory, culminating in The Last Portrait shortly before her death. “Over the years, I painstakingly put my mother back together with my painting and embroidery, initiating this series, ‘Evanescence’” (Makan).
The year 2013 marked a hundred years since Gandhi started his Satyagraha movement and Makan commemorated him in the above portrait. In this monochromatic artwork Mahatma Gandhi. Made in South Africa, she embroidered on khadi cotton to create a portrait that is visible from both sides. As part of his protest against British rule, Gandhi spun his own cotton (khadi) and encouraged all Indians to do the same instead of wearing British manufactured cloth. The title of the artwork refers to the fact that Gandhi came to South Africa as a lawyer but after his experiences of discrimination and injustice, he left here as a champion of human rights and a Mahatma (great soul). The red embroidery is ‘deconstructed’ Gujarati script which refers to Gandhi’s favourite song – Vaishnav jan to Tene Kahiye – a song which embodied the ideals that he believed in.
In 2011 Makan’s painting Miriam Makeba 1965, was purchased for UNISA’s Dr. Mariam Makeba Concert Hall. Makan portrays the iconic South African singer as she was in 1965, performing in America and becoming the first African to receive a Grammy Award. An outspoken critic of the apartheid government, Makeba was forced to leave South Africa and spent 31 years in exile. After she appeared before the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid (1963) and called for an international boycott of South Africa, her music was banned in South Africa and she was only allowed to return in 1990. Makan was moved by the personal and political hardships that she faced as well her strength and courage. In this portrait, she also captures Makeba’s beauty and innate sense of style which captivated audiences wherever she went. This portrait together with images of Brenda Fassie and Dorothy Masuku formed an exhibition called ‘Nomalungelo: Threads to Freedom’ which celebrated these women’s contribution to democracy.
Makan’s rich fabrics (silk, organza, brocade) and textures (gold thread, beads) are often used to highlight the beauty and resilience of the women she depicts – regardless of whether the women are struggle icons like Makeba who faced persecution or ordinary mothers who nurture and care for their children. A similar theme can be found in The Ravaged Butterfly – part of an exhibition called “Artivism for Breast Cancer” which highlights women’s strength especially when faced with adversity.
Historically embroidery has been considered a craft rather than art, but artists like Debbie Smyth and Kazuhito Takadoi use this medium to create cutting edge art pieces. Similarly, Makan creates artworks by connecting her images to history, memory, emotion and Hindu philosophies of life and death. Her body of work contains text, scared mantras, found objects, old saris and are accompanied by related oil paintings. She also attempts to merge her Indian heritage with a South African identity and democratic ideals.
Ka Mathe, T. A Journey Of Discovery. Mail & Guardian. Sep 2010