What Really are African Arts and Crafts?

An encounter with two traders in a small affluent town in South Africa leads Brian Kamazi to wonder about the contradictions surrounding so-called African arts and crafts.

Have you ever had this thought flit through your mind: what on earth are African crafts and curios? By the roadside of every tourist destination I have ever been to, there are always stalls or kiosks selling pieces ranging from stone carvings of lions to long elegant wooden giraffes. These pieces have a look and feel designed to capture the imagination of tourists looking for the perfect, essentialist ‘African’ memory to stow away into their usually Europe-bound suitcases.

But I have often wondered about what makes these pieces different from the sculptures and art pieces that occupy the ‘sophisticated’ art galleries and jewellery shops nearby. What makes those pieces more valuable? This question was at the forefront of my mind when I visited ‘African Arts & Crafts’ stalls in Franschhoek, a small town in the heart of the winelands of South Africa.

Image: Brian Kamanzi

Franschhoek is framed by mountain ranges at its horizon and carpets of wine farms on its borders and dotted with white-walled Old Dutch architecture finessed buildings. The town celebrates its French Huguenot settler heritage through historic monuments and a tangibly European aesthetic. Fine wines, good food and ‘African’ art appear to be at the heart of the Franschhoek economy.

At the centre of the town, just off the main road, is an open lot with rows and columns of box-shaped stalls of African Arts & Crafts.Many of the paintings hung on what looked like a washing line, pegged against the draping that covered the rusted wrought iron stall frames. The curios, largely in the shape of popular animals, stood in lines along the grass and smaller items, like beadwork and jewellery, were laid out on makeshift tables of wood boards propped up by plastic crates.

Hello brother, can I help you?greeted one of the stall owners, sporting a bright red Arsenal shirt. His name was Kuda. As we began to talk about his business, the first thing I noticed was the difference between the stalls and the high priced art galleries just meters away from where we stood. In contrast to the stalls, the stores across the road stood resolute and carried an air of professionalism that undoubtedly contextualised their fairly similar artworks.

Image: Brian Kamanzi

After discussing this with Kuda, he gestured to his business partner, Mr Dhlewayo. He assured me that they wanted to rent a more permanent space but the rent in the town went for as much as R8 000 to R10 000 per month and required capital they didn’t have.

“If we could have a website, like them, maybe we can sell more pieces. For us, we don’t have internet. Many of our customers want to pay with a credit card. We don’t have machines. We are just outside here.” Mr Dhlewayo said, gesturing to the open lot before us.

With the history and present demographic distributions of capital in South Africa at the forefront of my mind, the clearly classed and racialized picture in front of me was visceral. What does it mean for white store owners to occupy spaces of permanence while black store owners remain visibly impermanent? I let my thoughts wander.


Image: Brian kamazi

Drifting back to the conversation, much to my surprise Mr Dhlewayo said they sometimes collaborate with galleries across the road to sell the bigger sculptures for a much higher price. “They can take between three and four months before they are sold, but when that money comes in its worth it,” Kuda chimed in.

After asking for clarification, they assured me that when sold in the gallery the pieces would sell for higher prices than in their stalls. For many reasons this fascinated me; we were perhaps getting closer to the core of the questions I had arrived with. The monetary value of the art was certainly abstract, what was interesting was how these pieces assumed different values when contextualised by the two environments that were figuratively two worlds apart.

My curiosity piqued, I inquired about where they sourced their art works. “Some pieces are made nearby, others are brought from other African countries… Cameroon, Senegal, Kenya, Zimbabwe… and some others,” Kuda explained.

They went on to tell me that large transport trucks from different regions in the continent deliver packages and containers filled with African ‘Arts & Crafts’. When I asked them if any of the pieces were made in China, Kuda smiled and softly said, “Some are… yes” – until Mr Dhlewayo interjected and responded. “Most are made in Africa, you see this is African art made from African resources. The stone you are looking at and the ironwood, all African.”

“Do you have connections with the artists? Do you know who they are?” I asked. “It depends how we get the pieces. Some of the artists leave a signature or a name then we can use it but others have none. Sometimes I lie [haha] and tell the customers I made it because I don’t know the artist. I run a business, man.” Kuda said.

Image: Brian Kamanzi

Pondering the information that the two stall owners had shared I began once again to draw contrasts between the temporary stalls and the permanent stores. In the gallery space, the name of the artist carries prestige and the promise of originality, whereas the artists whose work is in the stalls are denied that same privilege.

Turning my attention to the rest of the stall, I asked Kuda about the relationship between the stall owners and the gallery and store owners. “Sometimes we order pieces from the same place. But for us we have lower prices,” Kuda said. “They don’t like it when we do that.”

We laughed for a while and said our goodbyes. As I continued down the street, weaving in and out of the art stores along the main road, I thought deeply about the countless roadside stalls I had seen in different places. I thought of the complex hidden network of artists, transporters and businessmen that brought these pieces to roadsides and open lots, just like this one.

I wondered about value. Who profits from the aesthetic creations in the name of Africa? Who consumes it? Who is allowed to produce work of value?

So often we talk about identity and what it means to be ‘African’ or ‘Afropolitan’ and it can sound academic and self-indulgent, but these are questions we must attend to in a focussed manner. Not as a means to apportion blame to spectres of history, but as a means through which we can begin to reshape and seize control of our livelihoods in a way that is sharpened to the hegemonic structural forces that relegate ingenuity on the continent into diminutive positions by marginalising African’s into “temporary” realms.

As a crucial driver in moving forward in light of injustice we must give substantive recognition to the existing talent and hidden networks that already exist within the continent, reinforcing bonds by building and curating permanent spaces, bringing to light the taste, touch and feel of a vibrant and determined continent that has reclaimed it’s immeasurable value.


Written by How Africa

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