The Art of African Beading
Learning has been an important part of our grand tour this year and I knew as soon as we arrived in Cape Town and I saw the abundance of beautiful beadwork around (at the Pan African market for instance) that beading was what I wanted to learn here.
“Traditional healers and doctors used beads as part of their healing practices. Beads were also used to trade in the way that money is used today. And women, especially elderly women – a young maiden wouldn’t wear many! – used beads to decorate themselves,” Sabelos tells us.
“In our culture, beads tell stories about who people are, how old they are. The amount of beads you wear indicates your age, and the older you are, the more you’re respected because of the wisdom you have,” Sabelo says. Hmmm, I think, it’s actually my birthday week… perhaps that’s a good excuse to buy some beads…
Our first stop is Monkeybiz, a sustainable, income-generating, non-profit organization that provides skills training, support and self-employment opportunities to bead artists in the townships. It also has a gorgeous shop with glass shelves crammed with colourful products made from beautiful glass and plastic beads.
Normally, our tour would include a visit to the workplace and homes of some of the 450 artists who produce these stunning beaded crafts, but many of them live in the township of Khayelitsha, and because of some trouble there yesterday due to warring workers union factions, Andulela will not take us there today for our own safety.
As we wander the Monkeybiz store admiring the array of beaded products – cute beaded dolls and quirky animals, colourful coasters and placemats, and kitsch replicas of local icons such as jars of Marmite – Saki, the shop manager, tells us about Monkeybiz.
“The 450 women artists all work from home to avoid the transport costs of coming into the city. We go to them to save them the expense of coming here and we provide them with the beads, stuffing and other materials, and then buy the finished products back from them,” Saki explains.
“Each product is a unique one-off creation,” he says. “There are set prices, but each price varies depending on the originality, complexity and quality of the design and its size.”
The more interesting, beautiful and complex a design is, the more income the bead artist makes. The idea is to encourage them to be innovative and to continually enhance their skills. Monkeybiz also buys the products from the artists rather than employs them, in order to encourage entrepreneurship, and if a product isn’t made well enough, they’ll send it back to the artist to begin again.
After a tour of the store, we head upstairs for a look behind the scenes, where we meet Siya, who is shaping the wire frames around which the women wind the lustrous beads. Products that require stuffing, such as the cute colourful animals and dolls we’ve seen downstairs, are stuffed with recycled fabrics or discarded cotton clothing off-cuts obtained from manufacturers. The company is green too!
We have a tough time deciding what to buy. Our Samsonites are already bulging at the seams. But we select a cute little crimson, blue and burgundy horned fella that looks like a cross between a gazelle of some kind and a zebra that might have been created by an artist on acid. See for yourself: he’s top left in image 1.
If you can’t get to Monkeybiz or Cape Town, visit the Monkeybiz website, and learn more about their bead artists and the work of Monkeybiz. While Monkeybiz profits go back to the artists, Monkeybiz appreciates donations, which can be used to buy beads and beading materials or food parcels.
Streetwires may be just around the corner from Monkeybiz, but it is worlds away in terms of how it’s ran. Streetwires shares similar goals to Monkeybiz in that one of its aims is to provide skills training, support and raw materials to its bead artists, who complete a National Certificate in Craft Production as part of their training.
Where it differs is that its main aim is to create sustainable long-term employment for as many destitute people as possible, rather than to develop entrepreneurs like Monkeybiz. Streetwires currently employs more than 100 formerly unemployed men and women.
Although some of Streetwires’ best artists design and produce their own products, most of the artists work together in teams, each producing beaded bits that come together to make up a number of products, rather than individual artists producing a one-of-a-kind piece.
We start at the gorgeous shop upstairs before getting a tour of the production process and the studio downstairs. Streetwires receives large, commissioned orders from South African companies and when we visited artists were working in groups to make beaded airplane wings for tourism trophies, each team making the ‘wings’ for a different airline.
While the set-up may have resembled an assembly line, it was probably the most relaxed of any we’ve seen, with the artists clearly looking like they enjoyed their work, chatting, flirting, listening to music, and texting on their mobile phones. It looked fun and it looked easy, however, I was about to find out that beading was a little more demanding than it seemed when we headed upstairs for my lesson in beading.
THE CRAFT OF BEADING
My instructor was Jethroe, one of Streetwires’ senior artists, who designs and produces his own products, such as the lizards pictured above. Jethroe presented me with a couple of small, simple, wire frames – nothing as fancy as the animals or dolls I’d seen so far, just a heart and a flower – and some beads already strung on a wire.
“It’s easy,” he assured me, as he quickly and expertly demonstrated how to push the beads to one end of the galvanised iron wire, wrap a section of beads around the shape, and squeeze the beads in before wrapping them around the wire again, to make nice, neat lines of beads.
It looked easy when Jethroe showed me, but it proved trickier when I tried it myself. It also involved a bit more concentration. I couldn’t imagine chatting or flirting, let alone texting on a mobile phone.
With each line of beads that I created for my wire flower, however, I became more adept, more confident, and faster. I was still slow, and it took me a good half hour to finish a flower that Jethroe said he could create in a few minutes (practice makes perfect, right?) but by the end of the lesson, I had finished my flower, even if Jethroe helped me with one petal.
I got to take my flower with me too, as well as the heart-shaped wire and beads – “Your homework,” Jethroe said. I may not have got to make one of those funky animals – it would probably take me a week (although I did buy one from Monkeybiz) but I did get to learn a skill and appreciate a craft that not only has a long and complex history within African culture, but a strong future as far as employment and entrepreneurship goes in Cape Town.
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