Travels in Africa
Africa is the source of some of the world’s finest basketry. Binky Newman, through Design Afrika, has worked actively for over two decades to promote, develop and market the baskets of the continent. Her travels have taken her to every corner of Africa, where she has met extraordinary craftspeople, some in the most remote of locations.
South Africa: Xhosa baskets
Masizame Women’s Project in Coffee Bay in the Eastern Cape of South Africa has woven traditional Xhosa ingobozi baskets for Design Afrika for close on two decades.
Binky Newman and the project’s director Nomonde Madlalisa have been friends and colleagues since they met in Grahamstown in 1999, one year after Masizame was established. The project’s aim has been to create jobs for local women through craft development and in doing so to showcase the craft of basket weaving and the richness of Xhosa culture.
The weavers harvest river reed, called imisi in Xhosa, which is used for both the weft and the warp of the weaving. By adapting traditional shapes, Binky has designed a range of baskets which have been a great success internationally.
Some of these baskets have a wire armature which is made in Cape Town and then put on a bus to Coffee Bay, developing bumps and bends along the way which the weavers do not straighten, thereby giving the finished product its organic shape.
DuNoon Urban Weavers is a unique project in the Western Cape set up to encourage traditional Xhosa weaving in an urban area. Design Afrika helped found this group – with funding from the City of Cape Town’s mayoral office – and now partners with the group’s twelve members who produce exclusively for us.
Design Afrika has negotiated a special permit for the group to harvest imisi reeds in the Table Bay Nature Reserve, a conservation corridor which runs through urban Cape Town.
South Africa: Zulu baskets
Binky Newman has worked for many years with Zulu weavers based in the remote rural areas surrounding South Africa’s first World Heritage Site – the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu Natal. The primary weaving material for baskets in this area is ilala palm. Binky has conducted many product development workshops to facilitate sharing knowledge of basket weaving between groups and to bring contemporary forms to the designs.
In a different part of the province, Design Africa works with weavers who use the mountain grasses of the Drakensberg, combined with recycled plastic strapping, to create a range of sturdy laundry baskets, trays, planters and sidetables.
Zimbabwe has a great tradition of fine artisans, especially basket weavers. The BaTonga are famous for their basket weaving skills and mathematical design sense; the Ndebele for their bold and dramatic bowl baskets and the Shona for the fineness of their weave. Delicate Shangaan baskets, dramatic tsopotwe gourds from Buhera and sisal baskets from Masvingo are all part of Design Afrika’s classic range.
Binky Newman has been traveling and working in Zimbabwe since 1975 and has a close working relationship with many of the producer groups.
Southern Zambia is home to the Zambian BaTonga who were displaced by the building of hydroelectric Kariba Dam on the country’s border with Zimbabwe. The Cisuwo plateau basket from this area is made using a similar technique to that of the Zimbabwean BaTonga baskets but is larger and more dramatic. Ilala palm is woven around the radials or insamu, which are naturally dark brown in colour and come from an endemic creeper.
From the western part of the country comes a style of basket much loved by interior decorators the world over – the Makenge winnowing basket, new and repaired, which is made from the roots of a shrub.
The town of Agadez lies in the Sahara in northern Niger and dates back to the fourteenth century. An important Tuareg trading post, it today still sees the arrival of caravans bringing salt from the desert in the east. Design Afrika stocks ‘flat plateau’ baskets and various styles of shopping baskets made of palm fibres woven by a collective of Tuareg-Berber women based in the area.
Botswana baskets are well known and considered by many to be amongst the finest in the world. Binky was sent to Botswana in 1975 to search for the legendary Hambukushu and Bayei baskets. Not only did she find exquisite baskets, but she found a wilderness area and people who have fascinated her ever since. In 1990 she had the privilege of living on an island in the Okavango Delta where several weavers lived and this inspired her to the launch Design Afrika to market their work.
Burkina Faso may be one of the poorest countries in the world but it has a rich tradition in design and handmade craft. Cotton is extensively cultivated and Design Afrika imports the much coveted Mossi handspun and hand woven cloth. Countries like Mali and Nigeria are better known for their indigo cloth but in fact Burkina Faso has optimal conditions for the indigo dyeing process. Design Afrika carries a range of indigo cloth throws made in Burkina Faso as well as some basketry including food covers made from millet stalks.
The region of Bolgatanga in the north of Ghana is well known for its durable and brightly coloured Bolga baskets. Design Afrika is supplied by a fair trade project in the area which works with a large community of weavers. The project continually develops new grass dyeing techniques and works on new colour combinations producing spectacular pieces.