Xhosa Tobacco Bag

Xhosa Tobacco Bag (Inxili)

46cm (length) 21cm (width)
This object is the property of Iziko Museums. Should you wish to make use of it in any manner, permission must be obtained from Iziko Museums.

The object is fragile, and researchers are not able to touch it. The Xhosa Tobacco Bag is available for viewing at Iziko Social History Centre by appointment only.

Object Domicile

SAM-AE 6650 Xhosa Tobacco Bag,
Iziko Social History Centre, Spin Street in Cape Town, -33.92564604004673, 18.42205524444580

Object Origin

Transkei, Eastern Cape, South Africa

GPS: Latitude: -32.0000 | Longitude: 27.0000. Unknown, but was donated by collector Dorothea Frances Bleek to the South African Museum in 1947

The Xhosa Tobacco Bag was collected in the Transkei Eastern Cape and presented by South Africa-born anthropologist and philologist Dorothea Frances Bleek to the South African Museum in 1947. Her interest in African languages was influenced by her father, Wilhelm Bleek; a philologist who pioneered the study of languages of some Southern African people in the 1860’s and 1870’s. This rubbed off on Dorothea, whose research primarily focused on the Khoisan - indigenous hunter-gatherer groups representing the first peoples of Southern Africa, whose territories spanned the entire Sub-Saharan African countries – and their languages. The object was later donated to the South African Museum (SAM) in Cape Town in the year 1948.

1947 was a year of significant political, economic and social change the world over, but most especially in South Africa. It was the start of the Cold War, the African National Congress and the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses formed an alliance to explore non-racial resistance strategies, and Jan Christaan Smuts became the Prime Minister of South Africa, only to be unseated a year later by the National Party, and its separatist Apartheid agenda. Despite these monumental progressions and regressions, one thing remained unchanged; European settler’s fascination with the possession of indigenous cultural objects. One has to wonder why this persist – could it be that the visual representation and the meaning of the objects and their offering remain timelessly desirable, or is it a tangible way of possessing the soul of the original source; its people?

Dorothea Bleek is viewed as a significant figure in Southern African history, for the contributions she made to the Sub-Saharan regions ethnographic and historical value; as she devoted her life to the completion of her father’s research on South Africa’s most ancient culture. However, this does not dismiss her failure to acknowledge the creators of the objects she collected. It is understood that time passes, and language becomes a barrier at times, but when does the creator of the object become equally as important as the object collected from them?

Location, and our cultural associations to certain spaces entertain the concept of borders, and delve lengthily into colonial constructions of identity. Transkei, where the object was collected, is known as the home of Xhosa people who speak isiXhosa – a Bantu language. Although the language contains many words with click consonants borrowed from the Khoisan, it is closely related to Zulu, Swati and Ndebele. Without the name of the singular or collective creator, and a biography, and merely naming the object after the predominant cultural group in a location, collectors become engaged in something that is more than just a careless oversight; it becomes an entrenchment of colonial constructs, an “un-seeing” of the people in the group to whom the objects are assigned. .

The art of collecting ranges from didactic to completely selfish, depending on the information provided. At times, the purpose of the collection is to teach, preserve, address and highlight social issues. However, one could say that the collecting of indigenous objects that serve a ritual and spiritual purpose contributes to the dispossession of the indigenous people. The removal of cultural materials becomes part of the appropriation of land and ownership, and most importantly an alternative story and understanding far from the truth.


Literature reveals that many museums and collectors have collections of old Xhosa objects with intricate beadwork, dating as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beads were not only used to embellish garments and accessories, but also as a currency within African communities and had a considerable economic value. As a result, certain colours and styles of beadwork always represent some form of cultural status, ceremonial passage or clan, which, more often than not, has to be earned. The object of this study is a bag worn by both adult Xhosa men and women. It is always worn around the neck, as part of the individual’s traditional daily attire. Commonly made out of hide and decorated in beadwork, it serves as a storage space for stemmed pipes, tobacco, hemp and snuff, which was inhaled for recreational and spiritual activities.

This Xhosa tobacco bag was collected in the Transkei (now part of the Eastern Cape) and presented by South Africa-born anthropologist and philologist Dorothea Frances Bleek in 1947. Her interest in African languages was pioneered by her father, Wilhelm Bleek, a philologist who studied the languages of some southern African people in the 1860s and 1870s. This rubbed off on Dorothea and influenced her research, which was primarily focused on the Khoisan languages – indigenous hunter-gatherer groups representing the first peoples of southern Africa, whose territories spanned the sub-Saharan African countries. Her work played a vital role in the development of anthropology in South Africa, and in her fieldwork between approximately 1910 and 1930 she collected representative artefacts that spoke to the everyday life of the indigenous South African people (Wittenberg, 2012).

The tobacco bag in the anthropology collection at the Iziko Social History Centre (ISHC) was originally referred to as inxili in Xhosa. It is one of many wonderfully culturally enriching objects collected by Dorothea Bleek. The bag is made of wild animal skin and decorated with beadwork. It has an additional braid with a few wool tassels on the side. The functions of such bags differ depending on size and design. This particular bag is 46 x 21 cm. The object showcases skill in beadwork, sewing and weaving. Ceremonial or traditional clothing is often elaborately decorated with fine embroidery work and intricate geometric designs and incorporates the cleaned and preserved skin of an animal hunted for ceremonial reasons or to feed the community. A woman or group of women were most likely the main producers of such bags, particularly of the beadwork design. The typical Xhosa family is rooted in patriarchy, with men being the heads of their households and women at the beck and call of their husbands and fathers – and sometimes brothers, unless the brothers were married. At a time when traditional systems were not challenged, women were expected to be entirely subservient to men and to be responsive to their slightest needs, while men hunted and generally provided for the women in their families (Zenani, 1992).

Tobacco bags were made by a collective of craftsmen and craftswomen, with specialisations in bead work, hunting and bag making. Smoking in such communities was never a matter of addiction but a portal that would allow the individual on Earth to communicate with the ancestors for protection, much like other customary rituals. Men who had gone through circumcision and been initiated into manhood – ulwaluko in Xhosa – would be allowed to carry/wear tobacco bags and smoke. The corresponding rite of passage for women was an important symbol of maturity and status, and even women who were pregnant or nursing smoked. For nursing women, pipes had a long stem so that the child would not be affected. The ritual of pipe smoking was essential and was done during important discussions between the elders. Ancestors are a great part of Xhosa culture and offerings and sacrifices are made for them. Xhosas traditionally also believed in a supreme being that is closer to the ancestors (Dold & Cocks, 2012). Xhosas believe that the preparation of tobacco is sacred and should only be done by someone who is settled and mature and does not wander around the community. This can be a man or woman. A Xhosa person is introduced to the culture of tobacco from birth to death, such that when someone passes away it is sometimes said that Inqawe uyibakile – ‘they have laid down their pipe’ (Hlangani, 2016).

The tobacco bag is conserved in the ISHC archives and offers researchers a visual understanding of Xhosa craftsmanship of the early 1900s. It also gives contemporary researchers insight into what was considered collectable in the 1900s and specifically in 1947. While plenty of information is available about the anthropologist and her collections, little is known about the specifics of this object, such as who made it and whether it was bartered or sold. The art of collecting comes with the responsibility of knowing who made the object. This speaks to the mechanics of anthropology and the role of the anthropologist of that era. This particular object reminds us that modern anthropology is based on colonial ways of observing objects and understanding history. It is thus difficult to say that the history of the object is being preserved, because very little of the object’s history has been documented. Instead, it highlights that collections are sometimes more about the collector than the objects they comprise.

When industrial transformation really began to take place in South Africa in its second phase (1933–1961), it had a deeply destructive effect on traditonal African family structures. Adults had to work for the colonisers, who imposed their spiritual beliefs and practices onto the indigenous people, and as a result there was no longer time for folk craft traditions. The migrant labour system also put great strain on the traditional family, and some men established two distinct families, one at their place of work and another at their rural home. Despite living in urban areas, many lived in crowded and difficult conditions in shantytowns and migrant labor compounds. Labourers also had to adapt a new sense of adornment to meet European standards (South African History Online, 2018), which resulted in fewer South Africans wearing their traditional garments and less application of pipe smoking rituals. ‘amaXhosa’ – ‘The Xhosas’, were no longer identified by their cultural markers and had fewer opportunities to participate in spiritual practices. This makes the Xhosa tobacco bag of this period unique. It also speaks to a time when there was a distinct plurality of voices in the complex interplay between colonialism, race and class, as the Xhosa community, like all the sub-cultures in South Africa, sought space for itself within South Africa.

Contextual information provided about the object does not emphasise or highlight the importance of being in possession of such an object. My experience of the museum this year is that it is not a neutral space, nor do I think it could ever be. While curators, researchers and museum scientists must leave their prejudices at home, their very humanness arguably makes that impossible. In this instance, we can ask whether the ISHC is preserving colonalism by describing the object as donated by Dorothea Bleek, or if it is preserving the colonial eye and perspective by providing literature about the object written by researchers of non-African descent. It is the responsibility of the anthropologist in 2018 to do the opposite of the anthropologist of the 1940s, and to understand why this object is important in contemporary South Africa, particularly in light of the museum’s complex history adjacent to the current indigenous rights and ‘decolonisation’ debates in South Africa.

It is important for us to understand that our multifaceted cultural heritage also includes colonialism. However, it is also important for us, as curators, researchers, museum scientists and anthropologists, to understand that in our collecting and preserving we are aware that Western/European countries benefitted materially from the past where the indigenous people of Africa did not. In the new South Africa, the conversation around those who identify themselves and their ancestors as colonisers and those who consider themselves colonised is always a difficult discussion and contains problematic homogenisations. It is important for curators and researchers to conduct new research into objects that lack contextual, historical information and to find new methods of critically engaging with such objects and with museum visitors. We must find and apply new ways to engage with, catalogue and curate objects such as the Xhosa tobacco bag.

It is difficult to recurate this tobacco bag and replicate its original purpose, but this gives the museum an opportunity to collaborate with traditionalists from the object’s original finding place to assist a new curatorial perspective, to reinvigorate the spiritual and cultural depth it is lacking and to faciliate an understanding of the original way in which the object was used before it was collected.

In the Object Ecologies exhibition, I wanted to emphasise how the object was used in the past with regards to how it was worn, as well as highlight its spiritual significance. In its display cabinent, the tobacco bag rests on a perspex platform and is not pinned or hung; as it has been separated from its maker, it should not be connected to anything else. This reminds the viewer that the object is not simply a bag, and, although it is empty now, its original function would have been to store objects that connect the owner of the bag with their ancestors. Women’s bags more often than not had more intricate beadwork and a braid and tassels, so behind the object is an image of a Xhosa woman, who is of age yet not married and is dressed in the traditional daily attire of Xhosa women. Her hair is exposed, highlighting that she is still a maiden. Although the original history of the tobacco bag and its owner are unknown, the image gives context to how the bag would be worn. This facilitates a reimagining of the object in the 21st century.



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Hlangani, M. 2016. The Archeology of Clay: A Metaphor for Gender and Age. http://www.lifethroughclay.com/.

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South African History Online. 2018. Lesson: The Industrial Revolution in Britain and Southern Africa from 1860. Available: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/lesson-industrial-revolution-britain-and-southern-africa-1860 [10 September 2018].

Wittenberg, Hermann. 2012. Wilhelm Bleek and the Khoisan Imagination: A Study of Censorship, Genocide and Colonial Science. Journal of Southern African Studies. 38(3): 667-679.

‘Xhosa’.  n.d. Countries and their Cultures. Available: https://www.everyculture.com/wc/Rwanda-to-Syria/Xhosa.html#ixzz5QgmgGDE2 [5 September 2018].

Zenani, Nongenile. 1992. The World and the Word: Tales and Observations from the Xhosa Oral Tradition. Collected and edited by Harold Scheub. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.


Transkei, Eastern Cape (1947) – Cape Town Western Cape (1948)


This project wouldn’t have been possible, without the guidance and support of Professor Pippa Skotnes, Iziko Social History Centre and curator of the Anthropology collection Gerald Klinghardt. I would also like to thank Carine Zaayman, Nina Liebenberg, Karen Ijumba and Lyndall Cain for their supervision and enthusiasm throughout this project. I can’t forget my fellow classmates, who provided me with advice, patience and creative inspiration. I would like to thank Tham-Tham Tshiki and Solomzi Tshiki for their never-ending sacrifices. Where help begins, dreams are made possible. Contribute information to this page