The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

by David M. M. Riep
Colorado State University, Fort Collins

A lesira, or grass veil worn by some South Sotho female initiates during lebollô. The veil hides the identity of the wearer, and shares numerous visual aspects with other South Sotho female arts. Private Collection, 2010. Photo by David M. M. Riep.

Among the South Sotho cultures of South Africa and Lesotho, the visual arts play an important role in expressing one's identity, marking periods of social transition, and maintaining relationships with the spirit realm. The objects themselves often link principle with practical manifestation highlighting the relationship between art and idea. Although South Sotho culture has undergone significant change since the formation of the Basotho polity nearly 200 years ago, one can locate strong continuities in the appearance and use of the visual arts as expressions of self. Such continuities often occur in the most culturally sensitive activities, allowing one to recognize the role of the visual arts as signifiers of individual and cultural identity.