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Africa By Design

Aesthetes, artists, style mavens and fashionistas convened at the Design Indaba in Cape Town to showcase the best of South African creative talent. Demand was high and sales were brisk.



As Cape Town basked in the glory of being named the World Design Capital 2014, the words ‘design, creativity and innovation’ rang loud at this year’s Design Indaba held in the popular Western Cape city. The annual conference focused on how these elements can positively impact the world.

Shweta Wahi

It was an early March weekend of fun and discovery for the creatives, artists, designers, hipsters – and ordinary folks – who made their way to the Cape Town International Conference Centre (CTICC). There were 500 exhibitors, from Mikhela Hawker, who makes lampshades from recycled plastic bottles to others, such as Galago, which designs and tailor-makes leather sandals on the spot, in less than 15 minutes.

Part of the event was a three-day conference on creativity, which included talks by some of the world’s top entrepreneurs, creative minds and trendsetters, such as computer scientist Juliana Rotich from non-profit tech company Ushahidi, Ivorian architect Issa Diabaté, and South African photographer David Goldblatt. Tickets sold out quickly and for those who could not attend, the conference was simultaneously broadcast across four South African cities.

Kathrin Kidger

The Design Indaba is a platform for exhibitors to showcase their products to consumers and industry buyers. Hearing the story behind the conceptualization, design and creation of a product directly from the people who make them, also helps drive sales.

One designer present at the event was Susan Slee, the owner of Maneki and creator of Mannetjie van Staal – meaning ‘little men of steel’ in Afrikaans. This former goldsmith and jewelry designer displayed an ethnic and animal-themed range of cutlery. Her fascination with the simplicity and quirkiness of children’s drawings led to the creation of the van Staal family. Her stainless steel cutlery range features six characters, each with a name and story. The range has since expanded to wood, carved by Zimbabwean artist Nathan Kenias.

Kathrin Kidger

Yet another participant was Palesa Litha, an emerging designer who studied music before moving on to jewelry design. Her 2014 range, manufactured at an incubator in Rustenburg in the North West province of South Africa, explores the parallels between music and design.

The showcased designers were required to have at least two years’ experience in retail and had to have attended various workshops throughout the year, encompassing everything from costing and retail management to media training. Ten of these designers will now  go on to be a part of the South African collective at international trade fairs in in 2014 and 2015.

The Cape Town Fashion Council (CTFC) booked a R1-million ($93,722) space – the largest at the expo – to showcase 40 emerging and established designers. The CTFC develops entrepreneurship among designers and wants to shift fashion away from being about aesthetics towards embracing a sustainable business model.

Shweta Wahi

Bryan Ramkilawan, Chief Executive Officer of the CTFC, is working on partnerships across Africa and wants to share intellectual property to get the local and African design industry to where it should be.

South African consumers are starting to pay more attention to local rather than international designs, says Ramkilawan. Three days of sales at the pop-up stores totaled R1.1 million ($103,116), this excluded buyer sales estimated at R2.5 million ($234,327). All the money from the sales went to the designers.

Whether it is fashion, décor, music or art, be sure to head to this year’s World Design Capital. In the words of Ramkilawan, “design is a way of life”.

What design means to them

Shweta Wahi,
Fashion Designer

“Design to me, is all about exploring the creative tidbits from my childhood, what’s in front of me right now, the colors I see, the people I meet, the way a piece of fabric falls on the body, the way it feels – it’s a matter of perfecting how it feels and looks to express myself and tell my story.”

David Tlale, Fashion Designer

Fashion designer David Tlale at his Sandton store; Johannesburg, 1 November 2011 – Photo by Brett Eloff.

“Design means innovation, it means evolving, it means moving forward, it means how you reinterpret what has already been done.”


Jeanne van den Heever, Product Designer

“It means coming up with something creative, especially if you can add function to that in styling.”

Palesa Litha, Designer

“It is a different way of thinking. It’s science, it’s philosophy and it’s a way of living.”

Weaving Cultures
Elbé Coetsee brought rural appeal to urban folk at the Design Indaba

In the late eighties, Elbé Coetsee and her husband moved to a game farm in rural Limpopo, South Africa. Based 15 kilometers from Botswana and 18 kilometers from Zimbabwe, Coetsee often encountered women who were looking for work even as their husbands toiled away on the roads and farms. Coetsee took up the role of mentor, teaching the women to weave, embroider, bead, make candles and paint. This provided a great platform to exchange cultures.

“It’s a wonderful experience to be able to learn from them and share some of my culture with them. I really think it’s about bridging gaps and having an understanding for another’s culture.”

Soon the orders came rolling in. In 1994, Coetsee registered the company under Mogalakwena Craft Art Development Foundation, named after one of the main rivers in Limpopo; Mogalakwena, meaning fierce crocodile.

Twenty years on, the company has grown to 20 employees who handcraft dainty table linen, placemats, table cloths, serviettes and scatter cushions, distributed and sold throughout South Africa. Although living rural comes with its challenges, such as being in remote areas away from the trappings of the city, not to mention traveling on dust roads, Coetsee says being surrounded and inspired by nature brings her a joy she cannot describe. Coetsee says the Design Indaba allowed her to showcase her work to an audience that would otherwise not have been able to see it. “It was our most successful Design Indaba,” she says.


The Design Indaba also got to the heart of objects, and how. The ‘color one’ installation for Mini, by Scholten & Baijings from Amsterdam, dissected the design and composition of a Mini One car. The car manufacturer also displayed the Mini Connected system’s Dynamic Music function, a feature that adjusts the rhythm of music according to the drivers’ driving style. The faster one drives, the louder the music. Attendees at the event could create their own remixes on the Mini dance floor, which was equipped with motion sensors.




The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria



Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.

There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens. 

Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.

“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.

Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.

“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”

Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.

Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.

“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”

Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.

“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”

This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.

“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”

She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.

As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.

“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.

And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.

One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.

“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”

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Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown



Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.

During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.

“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.

He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.

He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.

“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”

Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.

“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.

During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.

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‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’



A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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