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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

BEAD BY BEAD (article first published : 2008-01-29)

“Since it began in 2000, Monkeybiz has transformed the South African beading landscape.” So reads the fly cover of Bead by Bead: Reviving an ancient tradition: the Monkeybiz Bead Project, written by Barbara Jackson and Kristy Evans.

Founded by Barbara Jackson in 2000 with Shirley Fintz and Mathapelo Ngaka, Monkeybiz now employs some 450 disadvantaged women from around Cape Town and it has indeed transformed the beading landscape. The book offers the fascinating story of this project which produces delightful and highly innovative bead art which is now sold beyond the borders of South Africa, and indeed Africa itself.

Barbara Jackson and co-writer Kristy Evans, who is responsible for Monkeybiz’s development, affirm that Monkeybiz has transcended the average bead product normally offered at craft outlets. It was “never destined to churn out soulless, mass-produced curios for tourists, which are a tired spin-off of colonialism,” they say. It all started when Shirley Fintz brought a doll made by her domestic worker to Barbara Jackson’s ceramics studio. Mathapelo Ngaka, a part-time student in the studio, took the doll to show to her mother, Makatiso, an experienced and skilful bead artist, with the brief: “Do a doll that looks unique”. And she did.

Recalls Barbara ruefully: “No-one would take us seriously. We were artists with no business experience and, frankly, we were entering uncharted territory. People could be excused for having thought we were monkeying around.” And so the offbeat name of the project stuck.

An opening double-spread features two fantastical beaded creatures eyeing a patterned pinafore dress on a makeshift washing line in front of a background of dreary corrugated iron shacks surrounded by litter and debris. A stark reminder that many of the creators of these beautiful beaded pieces have come from – or live in - depressed areas. This placing of extraordinary beadwork against ordinary surroundings is confirmation of the capacity of the creative spirit to rise above its surroundings and fly free of any boundaries.

The pages that follow pay tribute to the people and institutions whose financial support have made Monkeybiz possible, among them international actor Rutger Hauer and his Starfish Association. The reader is then enticed by the history of beadmaking in South Africa and how it forms a major part of traditional culture. A picture of Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, is shown holding a doll made in his own image which reflects his wide smile.

Just when you begin to feel that you are reading an annual report to shareholders – albeit enlivened by the charming images - you reach The Gallery section and this is where the fun really starts. Page after page reveal a glorious line-up of beadwork art ranging from soccer players, wedding couples or people in fashionable outfits to brightly coloured animals and bottles, tins or jars of household brands (complete with barcode!).

Reading the testimony of some of the beaders featured in the book is a humbling experience. For most of them, Monkeybiz has meant a new life in which they can conduct themselves with pride and achievement.

Dedicated to bead lovers all over the world and to all the beaders of Monkeybiz for their perseverance and creativity in keeping the tradition of African beading alive, Bead by Bead is published by Jacana Media in sturdy good quality paperback and retails at R185. ISBN 978-1-77009-382-9. More information from the Monkeybiz online store at www.monkeybiz.co.za – Caroline Smart




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