• Insight: Week 9 | Tamar Mason

    12 - 18 August
  • Insight is a new online platform presented by Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, debuting work by a different artist each week. New or rarely seen work will be highlighTed alongside a short video presented by the artist. 

  • Insight: Week 9 | Tamar Mason

  • Tamar Mason’s practice encompasses textiles, sculpture, ceramics and architecture. The artist’s choice of media, traditionally associated with women's work, ornament, and domesticity, confronts perceived divisions between art and craft, and allows Mason to integrate artistic practices more closely into daily life. Her work further explores the intersections of male and female, urban and rural, Western and African, traditional and contemporary. Mason draws on the geography and history of South Africa, where she was born, incorporating personal experience and broader cultural narratives into her work.


    The artist worked with rural women’s community projects from 1987 until 2002 on a project to project basis, before moving to focus on her own individual practice. Examples of her collaborative works include a 35 metre long piece for the Mpumalanga Legislature Assembly Chamber interior and an 11 panel piece she was commissioned to design and make alongside the Kosikona women for The Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand. Mason's work is included in numerous museum and private collections.

  • Grace Unathi, 2012 embroidery (polyester, silk and cotton), beadwork of glass and handmade ostrich eggshell on black worsted fabric 215...

    Grace Unathi, 2012

    embroidery (polyester, silk and cotton), beadwork of glass and handmade ostrich eggshell on black worsted fabric
    215 x 88 cm, 84 5/8 x 34 5/8 in


    A portrait of a rural woman, Grace Unathi, meditates on a life lived in deep connection with the earth. Her figure is surrounded by roundels that reflect on her relationship with the landscape and its history, from broad cultural narratives to quotidian realities. The seedling symbolises growth and food, the tap the necessity of water. The hand cradling an egg illustrates the balance of true power, whilst the ant exemplifies collective labour and the worker who all too often goes unnoticed. Each medallion is linked by sprawling lines that follow the network of roads across Mhombela where the artist lives. This man-made marker of place contrasts with its organic counterpart, the red Erythrina, a flower indigenous to the area. One image depicts a landscape that represents the Barberton crater, a place where fossilised bacteria have been found - one of the earliest signs of life on this planet. Mason joins each narrative strand, encompassing pre-history to the present, to place Grace Unathi at the centre of a rich and vast universe.

  • 'It’s common in South Africa to give a child two names: an English one and an African one, the latter usually involving a wish for the child or a reference to the circumstances of his/her birth... Unathi is Siswati/Zulu for ‘You are here’ (your arrival is welcome).'

    Text from Rijkswijk Textile Biennale Catalogue 2017

  • 'The black of the fabric employed is not only the perfect support to make the colours of the threads and beads pop. It is also exactly the same material from which the men-in-power-suits are made.With every stitch Tamar Mason pierces the established order, covering their black and one-sided vision with colourful symbolism by showing the land that she loves, including the many facets of its cultural wealth.’


    Text from Rijkswijk Textile Biennale Catalogue, 2017

  • My mtDNA (LOa1b), 2012 embroidery (polyester, silk and cotton), beadwork of glass and handmade ostrich eggshell on black worsted fabric...

    My mtDNA (LOa1b), 2012

    embroidery (polyester, silk and cotton), beadwork of glass and handmade ostrich eggshell on black worsted fabric

    214 x 88 cm, 84 1/4 x 34 5/8 in



    My mtDNA (Loa1b) presents an androgynous figure walking across a dark landscape: a branching tree begins to bud and strange forms fill a sky glittering with raindrops. Tracing the artist’s mitochondrial DNA – referred to in the title – the work imagines its journey along the maternal line from the Ituri Rainforest to South Africa, where the artist was born. With the main slave trade coming to South Africa via east Africa, Mason contemplates her ancestors' presence on the continent for hundreds of years. The figure holds a spoon, an image that often appears in her work. A household item and symbol of domestic labour, the spoon is also a tribal marker associated with the men who carve them. Joining male and female associations, the spoon, with its sexual forms and universal function, points to the complexity of intersecting identities, both individual and collective.

  • ‘It is by escaping into a state of flow that I can return to face the daily erosion of time and routine. Working on fabric stitches together a semblance of sanity for me.’

    Tamar Mason, Pointure, Exhibition Catalogue, University of Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2012

  • Architectural Commission for the University of Mpumalanga campus


    Mason's practice also inludes large scale architectural commisions, including the University of Mpumalanga, Mbombela, South Africa. In 2015, Mason was asked to design five screens for one of the university's buildings. The artist's resulting design was inspired by two tiny carved wooden Ndebele pendants and made from tiles of two different types of clay. In 2016, Mason was commissioned to design four tile panels for another building on the university campus. This design was based on the fractal patterns in the leaves of the indigenous trees that flank the building, with each tile made by hand with the "leaf" design stamped into it.

  • Mpumalanga Legislature Assembly Chamber interior


    In 1998 Meyer Pienaar Architects commissioned a work for the Mpumalanga Legislature Assembly Chamber interior, on which Mason was one of the principal designers and technical skills trainer. Working with a group of over sixty people, mostly rural women, this was a collective effort documenting the history and prehistory of the province in beads, thread, appliqué and wire. The final piece comprised of 24 panels that tell the story of the history of the Mpumalanga province and measure 35 m long by 3.5 m high. They are worked onto a base of worsted fabric with beads, wire work, applique and embroidery.

  • Community work

    "I worked with rural women’s community projects from 1987 until 2002 on a project to project basis as I eas mostly self-employed and had to get funding to do the work. I would do technical and business skills training to set the projects up as independent businesses that belonged to the women involved. I lived in Botswana for three years, two years in the village of Mochudi where I started two craft projects, Ikgabiseng Jewellery and Ithuteng Tin Work and one year in D’kar, a Naro San community in the Kalahari desert. In D’kar I coordinated the Kuru Art Project and set up their cultural centre. The relationship with Kuru has continued over the years with various projects such as the Qauqaua book, a ceramic making workshop and various print making workshops held in South Africa.


    During the fifteen years I worked in many rural communities in the Free State, North West, Gauteng, Northern Cape and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa as well as few sessions working with various projects in rural Namibia. Most of the projects were exclusively with women and the technical skills varied across a range of craft techniques. The big embroidery projects were commissions and involved large groups of women as the work is so intensive. With these projects I worked mostly with groups that were already in existence and who were either bead workers (who were able to pick up embroidery skills quickly) or else established embroidery projects."


    Tamar Mason

  • About Tamar Mason

    About Tamar Mason

    Tamar Mason (b. Johannesburg) has a Diploma from the Scuola Lorenzo dei Medici, Florence (1987) and a BA from the University of South Africa (1993). Encompassing individual and collective projects, her practice has focused more recently on personal work.


    Major community commissions include the 35m long wall hanging for the Mpumalanga Legislature chamber, documenting the history and prehistory of the province; and the 11 large-scale panels for the Origins Centre, Wits University, which tell the story of the Bushmen or San over 30,000 years in Southern Africa. Mason's work has been shown in exhibitions including An Odyssey in Print: Adventures in the Smithsonian Libraries, National Museum of American History, Washington, DC; Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg; Rijswijk Textile Biennial, Museum Rijswijk, The Netherlands; Museum Africa, Johannesburg and Pretoria Art Gallery and Museum, Pretoria.


    Collections include The Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; The Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Port Elizabeth; Wits Art Museum, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI and Mpumalanga Legislature Collection, Mbombela.


    Mason is Co-Director of The Artists' Press, a lithography studio printing and publishing hand printed limited edition prints by leading artists from southern Africa, including William Kentridge and Diane Victor.