Sindiso Khumalo, designer of the V&A Waterfront’s festive Summer Palace– a must-see feature for visitors big and small – is a leading South African sustainable textile and fashion designer. The multi-award-winning, Milan Fashion-Week darling has been featured in various international magazines like British and Italian Vogue. She’s also spoken on sustainability at the United Nations and the European Union. This year, she’s briefly departed from fashion to delight V&A visitors with a palace that embodies the Waterfront’s mission to bring Joy from Africa to the World.  

The V&A had a unique ambition to depict an African festive by employing local artisans to craft exquisite installations using recycled, upcycled and sustainable materials. Khumalo was a perfect match for the project. 

She says it has been a meaningful journey, “I am very much Capetonian in the sense that I went to university here, I had my first job here and I live here now with my family. The V&A Waterfront is an anchor place in this city. I have memories of going there with my parents and visiting after university, so, it’s a place that is within my history. It’s meant a lot to be there and create something that celebrates this city. The project is also a nice lift from the traditional – hopefully more will take it on board. Making the festive season our own has been a really special part of the whole process.”  

Khumalo’s Summer Palace is a wonderland where children can meet Mother Earth and the Guardian of Joy, and their magical menagerie of beaded creatures. Ambitious in scope, Khumalo designed the surfaces of the palace, along with the costumes for Mother Earth and the Guardian of Joy.

The interior palace walls depict African swallows, referencing the journey they make between the two hemispheres each year. Khumalo says, “Christmas is celebrated globally and is all about the coming together of communities, I wanted to reflect this in the work.”

The outer walls draw on African painted palaces such as those in Morocco and Mali. However, they all have a festive, The Nutcracker-inspired kind of twist. “There are also Christmas trees that look more graphic, like something you’d see on Zulu beadwork,” adds Khumalo. 

The display is watched over by a wall of characters Khumalo sketched from around the city, so that all Capetonian children can see themselves in the childlike graphics and feel like the narrative belongs to them. “The main thing is I hope the kids have the best fun in it. It’s really just for them. I felt like a bit of a kid myself making it. Fundamentally, it’s about having the magic of Christmas in an African way. I think that’s just a cool idea.” 

As you meet Mother Earth, take a moment to admire her gown, which features plants and animals in on a radial digital print. Then move on to the Guardian of Joy, whose outfit was inspired by iconic African male figures and celebratory outfits worn by African men. Throughout the installation, there are references to the influences that inspire Khumalo, including her Zulu and Ndebele heritage. 

She designs her textiles by hand, using watercolours and collage. They weave in a strong aspect of African storytelling, which is obvious in the Summer Palace. For Khumalo, South African artists’ anchoring in cultural ritual is part of what makes their work shine, “Many artists in South Africa have their expressions of culture expressed through ritual. Within our own specific cultures, we have the rituals of mourning, rituals  of celebration, and each with their own diversity in expression.” That diversity is celebrated as part of the V&A display. 

Khumalo adds that the project has been very rewarding on a personal level, “I’ve really enjoyed that process of working on something that’s not fashion because obviously fashion is my work. So that’s been both exciting and challenging. It’s always the more challenging projects that really begin to push your craft.”

The Summer Palace will be open to V&A visitors throughout the festive season. 

For more information, visit Waterfront.co.za.

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