As we travel and explore the globe, taking a little something home still sits high on the agenda. Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of tourists and the consumers’ taste for cheap goods, it’s difficult nowadays to find something truly unusual.
The Modern Day Curio Economy
Africa has a huge informal economy based around the sale of curios and craft. Traditionally this includes wood carving, wire products, basket weaving, beading, ceramic work and even painting. Sadly, many of the finer craft methods have been lost due to the demands of the typical buyer, as the average tourist’s taste is for cheap and cheerful with a clear 'African' aesthetic. Nothing is more stifling (and depressing) for a creative entrepreneur than having to fill this type of narrow and proscriptive demand in order to keep his business alive.
These entrepreneurs, often the sole providers for a family, do it with dedication and pride, as survival is dependent on sales. Skilled craft artists are employed to make the goods, which are then sold wholesale to the retailers - 3rd World commerce mimicking 1st World methods.
This doesn't mean though that these items have any less beauty or worth just because they are made in bulk. The intricacy and detail of a small beaded keyring, wire car or wooden carving is incredible and I highly recommend you buy one.
The Chinese-made African Curio
Along with the rest of the world, South Africa has been inundated with a deluge of goods made in the Far East. Necklaces and other jewellery are most commonly found in the curio markets and because these necklaces have that ambiguous 'tribal' look they tend to sell like hot cakes. They are also cheap. I have seen this 'jewellery' sold in road side stalls and markets across Africa.
Greenmarket Square in Cape Town – home to some amazing local craft but also a lot of cheap, chinese imports.
Adaptation of Craft into Art
It's not all like this though, some crafters have managed to continue making their own goods with artistic integrity and still run a successful business. This is where true artistry and originality emerge – to stay creative and commercially viable is an art in itself.
Look out for these gems and take something home that will still hold its appeal a few years down the line and out of its 'African' context.
Craft Across Africa
Malawi has always been known for its incredibly talented wood carvers. An entire Noah's Ark complete with animals, hollowed Globes that act as containers and charmingly naive giant fish are just a few of the items one can find in Malawi. Lilongwe's Central market has a good selection of Wood Carvings but Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi has a unique selection of work. This is probably due to its proximity to some of Malawi’s few remaining forests.
The Masai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania has become world famous for its traditional garb, particularly its intricate and brightly coloured jewellery. International fashion brands have taken inspiration from them and there is many an iconic photo of a Masai Tribesman or women bedecked in jewellery. Most of the villages in the Masai Mara region will always have a few items of jewellery for sale. Usually this is paired with a visit to a village to find out more about Masai life.
South Africa has probably been the most successful in blurring the lines between craft, art and design. Cape Town has a thriving design industry that is African inspired but very contemporary in its presentation. The Watershed, in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront, is home to a selection of craft, contemporary design and fashion.
Johannesburg's Maboneng Precinct is also definitely worth a visit to get a feel for what South African designers and artists are doing.
Uganda and Rwanda (as well as most of West Africa) are probably the best places to buy African Wax Print Fabrics. These brightly coloured fabrics are worn by women across the continent. The central markets usually have an area dedicated to fabric and on site tailors can make up whatever you want.