Beyond the beadwork

06 July of 2013 by

 

Story by Eric Mugendi for The EastAfrican

For a long time, African crafts have been under threat because, it seems, the world wants to own them by claiming patent rights. With their work often being replicated, entrepreneurs of these cultural artifacts are, therefore, losing a lot of money.

Take for example, the copyright issues surrounding the kikoy and kiondo of Kenya that surfaced a few years back. Some Japanese industrialists tried to patent the kiondo, while another group from the UK wanted to do the same to the kikoy. They both failed because they could not prove the innovation was theirs.

This points to the need to support the budding crafts industry in Kenya.

Founded last year, CraftAfrika is among organizations supporting the local industry. It hopes to equip crafts makers or “craft-preneurs” with skills to develop their businesses into viable ventures through re-branding.

The idea is to enable craft-preneurs to compete on the world stage, and gradually eliminate the stereotype that Kenyan craft is centered around Maasai shukas and bead-work.

Open air “Maasai markets” and curio shops that target the tourist market reinforce the stereotype.

“People need to realize that there is more to craft than what happens at the Maasai market,” says Christine Gitau, the creative director at CraftAfrika. “Crafts need a heart, a story they can tell.”

Cultural symbolism

Gitau cites the Murumbi Gallery at the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi, which contains a large number of artifacts from all over Africa. The cultural symbolism tied to the artifacts is of particular importance, says Gitau.

“Crafts are a powerful tool for communicating ideas, cultural values and the history of the people that make them,” says Gitau.

While Nairobi boasts a number of high-end craft fairs, where items such as bags made from leather and bone; elaborate glassware;  and salt and pepper shakers crafted from horn, fetch attractive prices, the traditional elements of the crafts are sometimes lost.

Gitau attributes this to the growing commercialization of the industry. As a result, entrepreneurs produce what the market wants, as opposed to items that are true to the art form.

CraftAfrika, therefore, hopes to build a supporting system for artists by connecting them with government agencies and other platforms where they can build on their work.

In addition, when an innovation succeeds in the market, it is usually followed by imitation, rather than more innovation. When one bead work design becomes popular, it is copied and repeated until it is no longer viable.

The alternative, according to Gitau, is creative evolution, for designs to incorporate elements of the work of others while adding individuality to it. That way, rather than mass produce copies of the same thing, we have multiple individual versions of one source, which greatly benefits the industry as a whole.

The hope for CraftAfrika is that craft-preneurs can grow and develop the industry, so that it evolves into a medium of cultural expression, while paying attention to the needs of the market.

Consequently, CraftAfrika sees the sector evolving from a cottage industry into a viable source of livelihood for many.

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