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African Art - the Sellers.
Beach front sellers in East London
Art for survival
Starting a small group of students at the African Christian College in Manzini, Swaziland on making a variety of articles using sea shells, feathers, pressed flowers and dry bark and wood has been an exciting experience. The students from several African countries meet on a regular basis to plan, share ideas and put their creative skills to work. There has already been a demand for some of the items and the students and their families are excited and energised. During the December/January break they plan to collect useful items for this "group in action". Who knows where this small beginning will lead?
In a continent where great poverty is found in rural areas in most countries, and even in urban townships that surround big modern cities, many “artists” work from their homes using wood and other natural products harvested in their area to carve out or make a large variety of objects. The skill that they have developed is passed on from generation to generation or sometimes simply gained by trial and error. Some products are functional, like walking sticks with carved handles or drums decorated with intricate bead work. Others are simply decorative and normally have a tribal African theme
These sellers in the photos taken this morning on the S/E coastline of the African continent come from a variety of countries, as do their products. Mary Nkosi grew up in the township of Gompo in East London and sells mainly bead work articles and necklaces that she has made herself. She buys the beads, bone and shell trinkets from the local bead shop and spends her day working on new articles at her beachfront display spot. Because she pays no rent or tax, she manages to eke out an existence and to support her family. She hopes to put her three children through school so that one day they can have “real” jobs.
John Sangele moved from Ghana to South Africa, where he now lives in an informal settlement in Parkside. A couple of times a year he or his partner, Jimmy, make a trip to Johannesburg, some 1000 km away, to buy products that make their way from the surrounding and other more northern African countries to that city. They travel in a taxi that specializes in this trip and transports their bag of good in its trailer They sell wooden masks from Mozambique, carved horns from Zimbabwe, and ancient tribal masks from Gambia. Their living depends on their ability to choose the right products and then on their selling ability.
Life in South Africa is better than in their country but immigrants often face the danger of xenophobic attacks if they are seen to be competing with local shopkeepers. Their pavement spot along the beachfront, where they sell their wares to tourists, usually keeps them out of trouble. Because they are sometimes illegally in the country they seem to be always looking over their shoulders as technically they need a trading licence but somehow the local police seem to look the other way. Their prices are reasonable, but they will always come down a few rand if you bargain with them as they desperately need the money a sale brings on a daily basis to survive.
You can buy the same products at the airport or at the expensive boutique curio shops in the big malls, but at two or three times the price. The wooden carved masks in the photo were selling at between R80 and R100 ($10-$12). In the boutique shops in Johannesburg or London they may well sell for ten times that much
Meanwhile somewhere in a small tribal hut in Mozambique or Kenya or in a classroom in Swaziland someone is producing a work of art. It may be a mask that is being carved in Northern Mozambique that someone else will transport to Johannesburg. There on the market it will make its way into someones bag to another part of South Africa. Eventually this mask will find its way to your den in London or New York, via the beautiful seaside town of East London in the Eastern Cape or one of the other tourist destinations in South Africa. Along the way several people will make a small profit and manage to put some food on their table tonight.
Such is life in Africa where great initiative and perseverance is needed for survival. Latest figures show that the number of tourists visiting South Africa has not increased much this past 12 months but today John, Jimmy and Mary wait in the sun for some to arrive. Fortunately the cool sea breeze helps them to keep cool and if they make a sale their family will have some food.