Over the last 30 years, Eugenie Drakes has witnessed firsthand the evolution and now global growth of Africa’s artisan sector. A consultant based in Johannesburg, AOW Handmade connected with Eugenie in South Africa to discuss her insights on the industry today, her advice on how best to work with the region’s artisans, and her predictions on the emerging trends set to make a big impact.
Based on your experience, what surprises you most about the evolution of the artisan sector? And, where do you think things are heading? Do you think artisan can be merged into the mainstream market or should be kept high end? Or both?
What excites me is to see the growth in so many enterprises that were started many years ago by well-meaning folks to help those that were struggling to survive. Many of these are now well-established handcraft businesses supplying to a global audience while still working to uplift the communities in which the makers live, many through a separate non-profit organization which is partly funded from the formal business. I believe that this is the only way to sustain this and it is also empowering for the producers, provided the business has an ethical values base.
There is a current demand for product from Africa and the Africa aesthetic is trending, but what is frustrating is that international designers come in and appropriate what is here—use it to boost themselves—and we allow this to happen. It is time for us to step up, step out and take ourselves seriously and take on the world! A small number of producers have done this but not enough have and more need to do this.
I am a firm believer that not many artisans are able to make as well as market their own product. The marketing of craft is highly specialized; one has to take so many different elements into consideration and has to understand the marketplace and what segment they are producing for. It is not possible for small producers to do this themselves.
I believe that there are many different layers to this—there are those that just want to make many of the same thing in order to earn money and support themselves and there is room for these products in the market place—often mass and lower end. There are those that are able to work with designers and are happy to step out of the norm to explore new expression and ‘take on the world.’ I believe there is potential in this market; however, the artisans need to be paid well and seen as successful in their communities to encourage the younger generations that handmade is a possible career option or we risk losing more of the skills. Simultaneously, there needs to be a focus on educating the market about why the products carry a higher price point than the mass produced. In order for this market segment to grow and thrive, this education is essential.
There will always be a market for high end handmade products but to access this market specialized marketing expertise and support from brand ambassadors and high profile individuals is needed to promote and create demand. There are the products—we need to grow awareness in the market.
What excites you most when thinking about design/ artisan collaborations happening in South Africa?
What particularly excites me is that we have boundary breakers such as fashion icon Marianne Fassler who really is inspired by, and understands, many of our cultures and expresses them in a very unique way and makes them ‘very sexy’ while they retain their authenticity. Marianne also uses many refined skills and grows the expertise of the makers as well as growing a larger audience for these products. She has a huge collection of old artifacts which she uses as reference points and also to inspire those working on collections with her.
What further excites me is when different artisans/designers work together and co-create or co-inspire one another and take themselves out of their individual comfort zones into new horizons. These conversations, particularly in South Africa, are necessary and are creating big interest in the marketplace. As these collaborations happen we are slowly growing role models such as ceramicist Andile Dyalvane, textile designer Ladumo Ngxolo, graffiti artist Atang Tshikare amongst others. These artists have an international following but are also working with, mentoring, and advising other rising stars. I believe the third leg in this are the businesses such as Source (established in 2003) and Southern Guild who have been active in the sector and have moved over ZAR60 million in design and export-related revenue into the mainstream export market as well as creating awareness of and developing the market for the very high end fine design products that they have showcased at shows such as Design Basel, Design Miami, and others. What is critical for incoming designers to bear in mind is cultural respect.
What advice do you have for those new to the field?
Be prepared for hard work and hard knocks; stay focused—extremely focused—and be very clear on what your focus is. Do not work from a point of rescue; work from a point that here is huge ability and unique expression and how do we harness this to build a successful and profitable social enterprise. Expose yourself to all the different aspects of business and always know who you are making the product for. If you are not clear on who will buy the product, do more homework! They days of pity purchase are gone and it is now about bringing unique products into a competitive marketplace so with the right product, at the right price, in the right place and with the right relationships along the value chain, you are good to go!
I realize you work with artisans in the field and help grow their entrepreneurship skill set. With that in mind, what are the main obstacles you face? Lessons learned?
There are now many designers working in the field and access to producer groups is becoming easier and business is being done, however we still have a long way to go. Our local education system needs to include creativity and business thinking, the gap between maker and market is still huge and many buyers do not understand the challenges faced working with rural producer groups, and they, in turn, do not have sufficient understanding of how to adequately service buyers and market demand. Realistic pricing remains an ongoing challenge, access to start-up finance, understanding of the marketplace, defining the specific target market and on-line shopping. However there are initiatives such as the Cape Craft and Design Institute that have made huge inroads into preparing artisans for the business of craft and linking them to the marketplace. I believe it is time to set up an effective handcraft export council in South Africa to further assist market linkages and effective business.
Anything you would like to share about craft/ design/ innovation in Africa?
I believe that people need to visit Africa soon before all the traditional lifestyles disappear—once you have experienced the pulse of Mother Africa and felt the heart of her people you will only buy handmade because in this way to take a piece of her heart with her.
For more info please visit: www.piece.co.za