Esther Roberts and the Phansi Museum

The 30 life-size puppets at the Phansi Museum show the ceremonial attire of various regions and cultures throughout southern Africa.

Esther Roberts was a remarkable human being. She was born in about 1900 and lived in Roberts House, a beautiful Victorian residence, situated on the road that now bears her name, previously Frere Road. Esther Roberts was one of South Africa’s first female anthropologists. She was an only child and a spinster, whose man did not come back from the battlefields of the First World War. 

In this regard, she was part of a small, but influential, group of liberal persons and scholars committed to social justice in an era of political oppression. In 1929 she was instrumental, with other liberal South Africans, in establishing the esteemed South African Institute of Race Relations, a policy research body, still operating and flourishing today, which spoke out authoritatively and vocally against the apartheid policies and injustices during the long years of National Party rule in South Africa. It was founded, inter alia, by Prof D Jabavu, Edgar Brookes and JA Nicolson, the Mayor of Durban. Its dedicated staff over the years until the present time produced painstaking and accurate research.

Esther was also an active member of the Black Sash, a protest and advice-giving agency, involving women of great moral courage such as Jean Sinclair, Sheena Duncan, Molly Blackburne and Di Bishop, who confronted and dealt with the pernicious influx laws which were an integral part of Apartheid.

As an anthropologist, Esther Roberts accumulated an array of valuable artifacts on Zulu traditions and culture, and although part of this collection is housed in the Phansi Museum, most of her work and collection is in the Campbell collection at the University of KwaZulu_Natal (UKZN). Her early work on the Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church, according to Marc Kalina  (A Guide to Glenwood Street Names), in the 1930s, is considered groundbreaking. Her home is one of the oldest stately houses in Glenwood and was built in the late-Victorian style by her parents in 1896. 

It has beautiful stained-glass windows and an impressive wooden staircase with a balustrade. It has been magnificently and generously restored and developed by its present owner, architect Paul Mikula, and is an ideal venue for a museum. Paul was instrumental in the renaming of Frere Road as Esther Roberts Road. The house was declared a national monument on her death in 1980. Today Roberts House, now restored to its original condition, is the home of the Phansi Museum which displays one of the largest collections of Zulu and Southern African traditional artifacts in South Africa.

The Museum was set up, not only to honour Esther Roberts as a pioneering anthropologist, but to provide a showcase of works of beautiful and characteristic African art and artefacts. It makes a meaningful contribution to the African Renaissance, since the collection, which covers about 60-70 years, although there are some artworks that represent a longer history, emanates from all parts of the continent. It is a celebration of the diversity and beauty of the distinctive art and crafts of Africa. Each relic and artefact has a story to tell and reflects the experience of the person who created it. 

The Museum is not only informative but is a source of pride and identity. The Museum, as explained by Paul Mikula tries to show the ability of art to rise above adversity, to heal, to confirm identity and stress that real art has its basis in a sense of beauty and order and striving for that is what art is about, The museum is about Ubuntu Art, designed to show that the powerful message that Art grows in the Heart. It combines and uses knowledge, the skills, materials ideas and the thoughts and experiences available to create something that it intended to share. Zulu tradition, as Mikulu explains involves two cardinal commandments: Respect and order. These are reflected in its art. 

This kind of Ubuntu Art should be perceived as an integral part of the African Renaissance, which should not merely be dominated by symbols of power, egotism, money and propaganda, but is far more holistic and as such can be instrumental for such a holistic education, that can contribute to the healing of our land with its diverse cultures and traditions.

Among the rich and varied collection of artefacts, is an exceptional and beautiful collection of beads, emanating from the different Southern African Tribes, including Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, the Shona from Swaziland, the Himba, and the Herero from Namibia. This magnificent collection illustrates the significance and use of beads to portray social identity, tradition and indeed spirituality.

There is also an extraordinary collection of thirty life-sized puppets, clothed in ceremonial attire, representing the diverse ethnographic districts. Each of these has a very specific dress code: the colour, material and design of clothing and jewelry indicate the geographical location of the wearer, the age, gender and social status.

The making of milk pails, also found in the Museum, has a symbolic link to the ancestors and were whittled from specific trees, beautifully shaped and decorated with the specific markings of the tribe concerned. The Museum also houses some distinctive items of pottery, such as the beautiful, perfectly hand-shaped pit-fired uKhamba or beer pots. Beer is traditionally brewed in honour of the ancestors, and consequently respected and presented in vessels fashioned with the utmost skill and talent in a way that is respectful of the community and its traditions. There is a collection of large, functional storage and brewing pots made by highly respected and esteemed potters in the country.

The Museum prides itself in wirework snuff containers dating back to the 1900s and other wire art forms such as the traditional Zulu baskets in telephone wire. Other artefacts of intricate work with wire include plaited walking, fighting and divining sticks that personalised these precious items for their owners.
In 2015, the Museum received, on loan, the collection of the late Frank Jolles, one of the world’s leading scholars on South African bead and African material culture artefacts. This includes a collection of wedding cloaks, clay vessels and exceptionally carved pails and platters.

It has a newly established reference library, designated the Paul Mikula Collection with research space available to those interested in researching the material available. Of particular interest are the works of Barbara Tyrell, a younger contemporary of Esther Roberts, who spent a lifetime recording the culture of the diverse tribes of South Africa.

The Museum recognises the importance of reaching out to diverse communities, and hosts school groups from both rural areas and the townships. For many learners, this is their first visit to a museum. Local and overseas tourists are also welcomed. For the past twenty- two years, the Museum, together with the Bartle Arts Trust, has produced a cultural calendar. Competitions for the learners are based on the knowledge found in the calendars.

The African Renaissance presents a challenge and opportunity for all who live on the Continent. This Museum and its collections can provide information and understanding of not only who we are but also the genesis of our culture and traditions, and how we can use this information in the contemporary world. The artefacts and art of Africa also provide an entrée to the philosophy and spirituality of indigenous people in their rich diversity. In this regard the Phansi Museum makes an important singular contribution.

What is interesting is that the Phansi Museum has its genesis in the legacy of Esther Roberts and therefore has an anthropological character part of the Western liberal canon; the two traditions are complementary and mutually enriching. The Museum is most certainly deserving a visit by interested persons, and of support in every way.

George Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993