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THE AFRICAN TOYSHOP (article first published : 2007-11-19)

Fresh Paint, a spacious gallery in Durban’s Glenwood specializing in unusual and quirky pieces of art from throughout South Africa, stocks a new range of handmade toys from Africa which would make perfect festive season gifts. Fresh Paint is the first KZN outlet of The African Toyshop.

The African Toyshop is a range of original Afrocentric toys with integrity for both children and grown-ups. It is an ingenious success story to be applauded and supported. The concept was established by Gauteng human rights consultant, Greg Moran whose work took him to far-flung corners of the continent. From these visits, he used to bring toys made from the region as souvenirs for colleagues, family and friends - which is how the idea of starting the shop was born.

The African Toyshop website explains that many African countries are amongst the poorest in the world. For most African families, the toys normally found in Western homes are either unavailable in their countries or, where they are available, are beyond their reach. But children in Africa do not go without. Instead, toymakers have produced high quality toys from natural resources and recycled materials for generations. Working with the most basic tools available, usually at the village level, artists produce toys that are culturally relevant to their communities as well as adapting traditional techniques to produce more modern toys (such as replicas of earth-moving machinery, 4x4’s, aeroplanes and helicopters).

Although some toymakers are able to sell their works to tourists, most still struggle to survive. In recognition of the beauty of the toys produced and the needs of the artists to earn a living, The African Toyshop was established in 2005 to provide an outlet for toys handmade in countries across the African continent. Their inaugural shop opened in Milpark, Johannesburg. Toymakers are paid a fair price for their toys and are encouraged to form co-operatives or train others in their communities to assist in making the toys, thereby ensuring that wealth is spread throughout the community.

Toymakers are advised of the need to replace natural resources (trees and reed-grasses) to ensure environmental sustainability and are provided with feedback from customers on their toys. They are encouraged to produce toys based on their cultural traditions but with an increased understanding of the need to produce toys for both boys and girls and, as far as possible, to produce ‘gender-neutral’ toys. Interestingly and refreshingly, the narrative of the toys is undeniably African providing a welcome relief from the American ideological onslaught. The toys and stories are realistic and depict African lives., from a colourful carved HIV/Aids clinic, to a bustling taxi scene, to a family of refugees carrying their processions while they flee their homes. Children are also able to learn about their neighbours and the animals found on this continent as they play.

The African Toyshop offers a brilliant alternative to the difficult-to-escape plastic guns, American-cartoon spin-off merchandise and the obligatory Barbie dolls. They boast a wide array of different handmade toys from 11 African countries, including South Africa.

Hand-made does not equal gadget-free. Items display a complex understanding of technology and are assembled with intricate and sturdy working parts. Although the manufacturing techniques and materials are traditional – the subject matter is amazingly current – from tractors, boats, earth-movers, planes and bang-up-to-date cars. Traditionalists will be reassured to see train-sets, farm animals, vintage cars and dolls-houses.

Not all the toys are for youngsters either – select items are complex, quirky and fragile and made for the playful adult to have as conversation pieces or executive toys.

The African Toyshop range will be a permanent feature in the Fresh Paint Gallery which is situated in a gracious Victorian-styled home (with rather large distinctive blue spotted dogs on the roof) at 60 Davenport Road in Glenwood. More information from the gallery on 031 201 8367.




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