Collection Explore
Essay
Christa Clarke
on Barbara Tyrrell
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Barbara Tyrrell (Durban, South Africa, 1912 – 2015, Fish Hoek, South Africa)
Young Ndebele Girl, Middelburg, Transvaal, probably late 1960s
hand-colored reproduction
Gift of Alfred and Margaret "Peg" Hodgson Mathias, Class of 1928
1978.54

African arts scholar and curator Christa Clarke was invited to the Tang Teaching Museum to review the museum’s holdings of art from Africa, a wide-ranging and eclectic collection comprising some 375 works. As well as advising the museum on the cataloging records for each object, Clarke studied in-depth a portfolio of ten hand-colored prints by South African artist Barbara Tyrrell.


The visually arresting hand-colored reproductions by South African artist Barbara Tyrrell record in glorious detail various examples of traditional dress of southern Africa from the latter half of the 1940s. Each print bears a title identifying the subject by ethnic group as well as gender, age, and/or social status. The portfolio—two sets of five prints—is accompanied by notes describing the dress and adornment and their relation to custom at greater length.(1)

These works are less familiar than the masks and figural sculptures that so often define “African art” for museum audiences. I am drawn to their hybridity and to the layers of historical complexity that they embody. They prompt questions that don’t lend themselves to straightforward answers. Are they art or ethnography? Do they celebrate traditional heritage or produce cultural difference? What do they tell us about the particular historical moment in which they were created? How can we view these works today?

Barbara Tyrrell (1912–2015) was born in Durban and raised in Eshowe, the colonial capital of the Zulu kingdom. Her family and the environment she grew up in kindled an early interest in Zulu culture and fostered her fluency in the Zulu language: she recalls the lifelong impact of witnessing local ceremonies at a young age with her father, a Zulu linguist employed by the Department of Native Affairs. Tyrrell also credits as an influence the work of her grandfather Frederick Fynney, who authored early texts on Zulu culture and notably accompanied the Zulu king Cetshwayo as his translator on his visit to England in 1882 to meet with Queen Victoria.

A high school encounter with Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin’s The Bantu Tribes of South Africa, an eleven-volume series published beginning in 1928, sparked Tyrrell’s interest in studying traditional dress: “I discovered the fine series of books of photographs depicting the ethnic types of the ‘tribal peoples’ [ … I]n the Duggan-Cronin books I sensed the germinating of an impossible idea.”(2) After obtaining a degree in fine arts from the University of Natal and studying fashion in London, Tyrrell bought a 1934 Chevrolet van and began to travel around southern Africa, sketching and painting. She sent her initial studies of Ngwane women in the Drakensberg area to Killie Campbell in Durban, a well-regarded collector of “Africana.” With Campbell’s patronage, Tyrrell embarked on what would become her life’s work—recording different types of “tribal dress” from throughout southern Africa along with notes on their relation to traditional customs.(3)

The ten works in the Tang portfolio are hand-colored reproductions based on Tyrrell’s original watercolor and ink illustrations, 250 of which are in the Campbell Collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. These watercolors were developed as finished works from hundreds of preparatory pencil drawings, which she sketched during her travels between 1940 and 1960 in the present-day nations of South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Describing her work, Tyrrell states, “Each of these tribal dress studies is the portrait of a real person drawn in his or her home environment and, wherever possible, in traditional posture.”(4) Tyrrell was respectful in conducting her studies: she was sensitive to the social mores of her subjects, communicated in Zulu when possible, and paid her models to sit for her. On her field sketches, she included the sitter’s name and careful notes about their items of dress.

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Barbara Tyrrell (Durban, South Africa, 1912 – 2015, Fish Hoek, South Africa)
Xhosa Mother, Peddie, Ciskei, probably late 1960s
hand-colored reproduction
NAN321

This individuality, however, is lacking in the finished watercolors (and related prints), which routinely identify the subjects by type—for instance, “Xhosa mother” or “young Ndebele girl”—or highlight items of dress, such as “sun hat” or “nose plug,” associated with a particular ethnic group. Much as Duggan-Cronin sought to do with his photography of the “Bantu tribes of South Africa,” Tyrrell’s goal was to capture in her drawings “all the main dress types” as representative of various ethnic groups. The individuals, depicted in a crisp, linear style with careful attention to detail, are presented in isolation against an empty background; in this way, they are timeless. In the notes accompanying the portfolio, Tyrrell consistently describes the items of dress as “typical”: for example, a “typical gala dress of the Swazi male” or “brilliant color blankets are typical of the Basuto.” Her observations and watercolor illustrations were ultimately published in 1968 as Tribal Peoples of Southern Africa, which offered an overview of the dress and customs of twenty-four different ethnic groups.(5)

Tyrrell’s project was driven by her conviction that traditional ways of life, including dress, were rapidly changing. “Tribal dress was my main concern and at the back of my mind is, and was, the thought always, that dress is disappearing fast,” she lamented. Authenticity was a central concern in selecting which field sketches to develop into what she termed “research-works,” the finished watercolors that were purchased by Killie Campbell and reproduced as prints and in her publications. “It is true that tradition is breaking down and that in the process dress is becoming hybridized and much that may be artistically very spectacular has no particular meaning and no relation to custom. In order to obtain a true record I had to observe, and perhaps even draw, many types before I could be sure of the authentic one.” Tyrrell distinguished these “research-works” from what she called her “art-works,” in which the attire was not “classically” traditional.(6)

Though Tyrrell sought out “authentic” dress, her own observations—in both image and word—were contradictory and present a more nuanced understanding of “tradition.” The profusion of beadwork that so attracted Tyrrell was itself a response to radical changes.(7) Imported glass seed beads were more widely available from
the late nineteenth century on, thanks to expanded trade networks. And as restrictive laws forced black South African men into migrant labor in urban areas, the women left behind in rural areas upheld “tradition” by producing increasing amounts of beadwork while items of dress historically made by men using animal skins were replaced by imported cloth. Tyrrell writes of Zulu men wearing “beadwork on their European clothing when there is a celebration” and depicts a Xhosa mother wearing a skirt of imported cotton cloth dyed with ochre pigment. She also records the adoption of European products and styles. In depicting “typical” Basuto dress, Tyrrell observes how their brilliantly colored blankets, factory-made in Scotland, “[have] become synonymous with the Basuto” and that women’s skirts are an adaption of dress worn by Victorian missionaries.

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Barbara Tyrrell (Durban, South Africa, 1912 – 2015, Fish Hoek, South Africa)
Gala Ornaments, Natal Baca, Richmond, probably late 1960s
hand-colored reproduction
NAN324

While the “traditional” nature of the attire recorded by Tyrrell remains ambiguous, such images served to construct and/or reinforce ethnic identity through dress and adornment. Our reading of Tyrrell’s work is complicated by an understanding of the political circumstances that formed the historical backdrop to their creation. Following the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, blacks were increasingly disenfranchised, segregated, and ultimately “retribalized” by the government, which sought to highlight ethnic differences. The institutionalization of ethnic consciousness was part of a divide-and-conquer strategy that exploited existing tensions in order to support white minority rule. The apartheid government, which came to power in 1948, eventually established “homelands,” an insidious system of ten separate nation-states for different black cultural groups. This process began in 1951 and was fully realized by the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act in 1970, which stripped blacks of their South African citizenship. Tyrrell’s work, though not created to support apartheid-era ideologies, echoed these divisions in ways she may or may not have intended.

Following Killie Campbell’s death in 1965 and subsequent loss of patronage, Tyrrell began to produce “tourist prints” to support herself. The portfolio in the Tang collection is likely from this era, purchased by Carrie and Alfred Mathias of Upperco, Maryland, during a trip to South Africa (one of 147 countries they visited during their long marriage) and gifted to Skidmore College in 1978. Historically, Barbara Tyrrell has received little serious attention, in South Africa or beyond. In recent years, however, her body of work has been the subject of reevaluation by scholars and others in South Africa. Her inclusion in the 2006 publication Revisions: Expanding the Narrative of South African Art marked a turning point.(8) This was followed, in 2008, by the acquisition of her work by the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg and an award by the President of South Africa for her contributions to cultural heritage. A 2012 exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town further recuperated her legacy, noting the relevance of her work especially for “young, global and design savvy South Africans of the 21st century.”(9) The Tyrrell portfolio in the Tang collection, perhaps unconventional and easily overlooked as a museum object, offers a fascinating window onto the history of race and representation in South Africa.

Cite this page

Clarke, Christa. “Christa Clarke on Barbara Tyrrell.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/206-christa-clarke. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019).

Learn more

Barbara Tyrrell
Artist
Xhosa Mother, Peddie, Ciskei
Artwork
Gala Ornaments, Natal Baca, Richmond
Artwork
Young Ndebele Girl, Middelburg, Transvaal
Artwork
i
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The Tang Pattern Project celebrates the Museum’s 20th anniversary. Organized by Head of Design Jean Tschanz-Egger, past and current Tang Design Interns created patterns inspired by the Museum’s exhibition and event history.