Suspending belief

2012-01-14 00:00

SUSPENDED from the ceiling of the KZNSA Gallery is a glittering mass of beads threaded into strings, flowers­, insects and reptiles — it’s one of the amazing chandeliers created­ by Umcebo Design, the community-based arts project started by Robin Opperman.

The chandeliers are being sold as part of the annual BuzzArt exhibition at the Bulwer Road gallery, but are only one example of the stunning creations made by Umcebo.

It has also created oversized earplugs and beaded rays for the Moses Mabhida Stadium, the 2011 Christmas decorations for the Cavendish­ Square shopping centre in Cape Town, and trees made from recycled material for the recent COP17 conference in Durban.

I first encountered Umcebo — which counts celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Rita Marley and Richard Branson among its clients — when it was based at uShaka Marine World, but problems with funding left this innovative project fighting to survive. Instead of throwing in the towel, however, Opperman made the decision to operate the trust using a different model.

Rather than have the crafters travel to the workshop and retail shop at uShaka’s Village Walk, they are now based at home and act as service providers to Umcebo.

“We are working with 25 home-based crafters — before we had to manage a shop and all that goes with it — but now the sky is the limit. We commission a piece of work, give the design input and encourage the crafters to develop as designers,” Opperman explains.

“We find people who can make a product and then mentor them and help them to get the product to the client. We’ve had some nice commissions including over-sized earplugs for the Moses Mabhida and trees for a client in Gauteng. There is a lot of work out there.

“And, while we have to acknow-ledge the perception that only Johannesburg and Cape Town produce good work, we have to show people what is being done here.”

Opperman, who now operates out of a workshop at 171 Bulwer Road, is grateful for the help Umcebo received from Old Mutual while it was at uShaka, but believes his new art and craft model is more sustainable in the long-term.

He is sharing the space with artist Jackie Sewpersad, whom he met when he began doing a craft project with Refugee Social Services (RSS), at the Diakonia Centre in Durban. “I believe our partnership is the next step in the evolution of Umcebo. You can stagnate if you don’t make changes. This venture has opened up so many possibilities for both of us,” Opperman says.

Sewpersad, a University of Durban-Westville graduate, who uses oils to create her paintings, agrees.

“We wanted to get together and be creative. Other people often want you to complete them. We just like working together. And it’s nice to have someone around for the good times and the bad times,” she says.

As for the project which brought them together, Opperman says: “Umcebo was commissioned to run a series of workshops in 2011 with refugees. The Paradise Project encouraged those taking part to create patchwork wall-hangings as a means of expressing themselves creatively and to generate income for them and their families. They also began making bags — including a massive order for COP17, during which 1 500 bags were produced using material off-cuts.”

Yasmin Rajah, director of RSS, is thrilled with the success of this collaborative project. “We asked people with some level of sewing skills to bring us examples of their work. Initially we wanted them to do wall hangings about paradise and what they expected to get from being in South Africa. But we knew that the people we worked with needed money, so we started to think about ways they could do this. That’s when we moved into bags,” she added.

“Since the project began it’s had a huge effect on the self-esteem of those involved and has even encouraged some refugees to start their own businesses.

“One man, a tailor, has sold many suits at the Diakonia Centre, and another refugee, Isabel, was commissioned to create a special one-off piece — a dragon,” Rajah said.

The refugee project is, however, just one avenue being explored by Umcebo.

For more information phone Opperman at 083 793 3408 or e-mail

You can also check out Umcebo’s Facebook page, Umcebo Design

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