By the people

2008-02-11 00:00

“These guys look at a piece of wood and say elephant or warthog. I just say braai!”

This, according to Alroy Gericke, chief executive of the Umkhanyakude Development Company is the essence of bridging the divide between curious and fine art, between stepping over the line from practical utensils and furniture to home décor and translating touristy trinkets into fashionable jewellery — all while carefully expressing the essence of Africa.

“For me, art is not just painting or sculpture. It is something to appreciate. This is about refining artists to create things with depth and imagination. But this is also not New York where people can work in studios. This is the reality of Africa. Whatever they do also has to be bankable.”

Gericke and business partner Cecile Bredenhann believe there is a huge amount of raw artistic talent in the rural hinterland surrounding the small town of St Lucia and have created a project named isivuno sentokozo (meaning harvest of joy in Zulu).

Gericke has access to artists who not only have no idea of the value of their work, but also live “in the middle of nowhere”. Bredenhann, through her quaint, thatch-roofed shop Scatterlings Of Africa on the main street provides the missing link in the chain — a distribution point. An artist herself, she is looking for pieces that go way beyond the almost identical carvings and crafts that line the road along the entrance to the town.

She is also looking to bring together a surprising diversity that is St Lucia and streamline the offerings of undeniably talented artists and craftspeople so that they can produce pieces that not only match the sophistication of the steady stream of international tourists that visit the region but cater to their limitations as well.

For example, at the furthest end of the main street en route to the estuary mouth is a man selling giant carvings — including a massive rhino sculpted out of solid stone. While the artistry is breathtaking, the practicality is close to zero. It would barely fit on the back of a truck, let alone in to the boot of a car or in a bag stowed in a tourist bus.

“These people don’t have power tools. They do everything with their hands,” she explains.

Patric Newerume (spelling correct) who sells breathtakingly intricate carvings of elephants and other animals in Scatterlings is an ex-Zimbabwean. He regards himself as a “master carver” who has little schooling but has worked with ironwood for over 40 years. He is currently teaching his son his trade.

However, Bredenhann says his work goes way beyond good workmanship and not only captures the animals themselves with breathtaking detail but adds a uniquely African dimension. It is now her mission to show the highly skilled that there is another completely different dimension to lives that have up until now been all about practical day-to-day survival.

She began with teaching a 14-year-old boy from Dukuduku to collect natural bits and pieces to hand-make greeting cards for the shop in which she worked after relocating to the tiny town from Krugersdorp nearly five years ago. He earned enough to buy his school uniforms and pay his fees. She ultimately bought the shop!

“I create (wall hangings) with natural things. This is about taking my own art a step further and sharing the vision of other artists,” she explains, recalling her first meetings with many of the local artists and crafters. “I was blown away. They shared what little they had with me. I realised that I had to build a trust relationship. When people saw that I was prepared to sit on the floor with them and share their ideas, you should have seen their surprise. I have been honoured,” she says.

In some instances, artists can provide pieces perfectly fitted to more sophisticated, westernised tastes. Others still need to make that transition and Bredenhann has started the process by supplying raw materials and encouraging them. “I gave them some ideas, shared what was in my head and they created something that was far more than I could ever have,” she explains.

Many of her contributors come with heartrending stories. Bredenhann says Obvious, her “beader” is a young HIV/Aids victim whose art has become central to his survival. “I have worked with him for two years. We started with a small project — producing crosses smaller than my little finger for key rings. Now he produces a range of brightly beaded animals from gheckos to tortoises and even sophisticated lampshades.” When he was so ill that he said he wanted to give up, she gave him a large order and told him that he needed to fill it.

The beautiful woven armchairs that would be at home in a sophisticated townhouse grace the entrance to Scatterlings. They are made by at least eight people — a master welder who provides the frame and a group of women who weave the covering from Ilala palms that are harvested near Manguzi. It takes more than a week to make a single chair.

The cushions on the chairs are made by a nearby embroidery co-operative. Gone are the garish and clichéd colours of tourist ware. These sport fashionable designs featuring butterflies or can be custom designed. The group is now working towards more abstract designs featuring the fever tree that has become an unofficial symbol of the region.

Most of the jewellery in Scatterlings is sourced outside St Lucia. Stephen Sutherland, a goldsmith, produces magnificent silver bracelets and pendants featuring the big five. More avante garde items are supplied by KZN artist Paul Briode whose work features a wide range of semi-precious stones, ribbon and wire.

Pots by Pam Craft incorporate new age motives and a lot of natural elements like circles and lines. The same artist’s newest “daring venture into the unknown” includes almost comic meercats and warthogs. Then there are glass plates, baskets, marula jelly … In all, Bredenhann has 60 different contributors to Scatterlings. When a range is not doing well, she works with the artist or crafter to fine tune it. When some fall by the wayside, she replaces them first with the work of local people and then with others from further afield.

“The most important thing is that people need to realise that they cannot pay China prices for handmade artifacts. These are not cheap curios. They have to change their mindsets,” she explains, adding that many of the hotels, lodges and bed and breakfasts in the region have embraced her philosophy and are directing visitors her way.

“There is such a wealth of work out there. The problem with most of us is that we don’t take the time to find out. That is also why those artists are selling things at ridiculous prices. [Bredenhann] will test the market and fix prices more realistically,” says Gericke.

This will open the door for more ranges — more culinary products and cosmetics from the marula which is prolific in the region (and one of the highest sources of vitamin E), more embroidery-based items and the further development of the range of hand-crafted furnishing as well as a whole new range of local pottery.

However, ultimately, the vision is to add a proper “fine art” gallery in Hluhluwe where the region’s true talents can show their work without having to worry where the next meal is coming from.

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