“NOW the time for renewal has arrived. Monkeybiz is leading the revival of this venerable tradition by bringing to it a fresh, modern aesthetic.”
Traditionally beads through the ages were used not only to adorn the body, but as a measure of value in ritual and economic exchange between locals and foreigners. In traditional African rituals, a fine bead necklace or beaded piece is treasured because it is thought to impart spiritual energy.
Colours are invested with meaning – Pink denotes poverty and the use of pink beads could mean: “you are wasting your money and have no cows to pay for my lobola (bride price, traditionally settled with heads of cattle). You do not love me!” Messages are encoded on a huge range of artifacts including bags, belts, collars and headdresses.
Beading is also central to Sangoma (traditional healers) training reflecting the various phases of initiation and rites of passage.
With Society taking up a more modern way of life and moving into the cities many of these traditions have fallen away, together with the old beading techniques and culture.
A lightbulb moment
It all began
Back in 1999, Barbara Jackson and Shirley Fintz both, South African ceramicists and African art collectors had a “light bulb” moment. Showing a small beaded doll to a part-time student, Mathapelo Ngaka, who then took it to her mother, Makatiso, a skilled bead artist with the brief “can you do a doll that looks unique?” and Monkeybiz was born.
Word of mouth spread of this wonderful supportive and empowering project and the register grew to over 450 beaders. Against all odds, it has maintained a sustainable business and is a benchmark for non-profit organisations – Monkeybiz is defined by the fact that it has retained its creative heart.
International acclaim has followed. Known as folk art Monkeybiz pieces were snatched up by Sotherbys Contemporary Decorative arts for a sell-out exhibition in 2002. The vibrant dolls, animals and beaded pictures have enthralled shoppers and collectors in Conran Design.
Stores in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. Donna Karan, has sold Monkeybiz craft art in her New York store DKNY. You’ll also find these iconic pieces at ABC carpet and Home, a department store that sets trends not only as a New York institution but worldwide.
It was even the subject of a short documentary, BIGGER THAN BARBIE – a tongue-in-cheek title reflecting the ambitious nature of the project.
Community leaders & teachers
Even though the first dolls
were simple in design and execution, the potential of the beaders was self-evident. Four People – Mathapelo, Makatiso, Beauty and Phumla – have played and continue to play, a critical role in this upliftment process.
Mathapelo, the projects community coordinator and communications kingpin is a vital link between the Monkeybiz studio and the artists in the townships.
Makatiso has taught many of the existing Monkeybiz artists how to bead; her house in Macassar, Khayelitsha, was the starting point for many a beader.
Beauty and Phumla, both facilitators, help to manage and organise 2 of the 3 main groups of beaders.
Authentic, once-off work of art
Each piece is designed and made by beaders in their own patterns and colours, and although there is a standard range of animal types when each artist makes her own animal every piece becomes unique.
Some of the artists are more experimental and adventurous and therefore new animals and methods join the Monkeybiz range.
Monkeybiz uses discarded off-cuts from clothing manufacturers as the filler material for the beaded animals and from time to time has donations of beads. The
Monkeybiz empowerment approach is remarkable because it encourages the woman to have dignity and pride in their work. It’s based on the philosophy of making artists self-sufficient, to understand business and to take responsibility.
“Our Product is the secret to conquering the market. It’s such an honest product” says Barbara. “Whether it’s a small angel or large animal, it’s a beautiful artwork, lovingly made. We’ve created a market that operates on the principle of “if you like it, you’ve got to buy it, You’re not going to get a second chance, because it’s an authentic, once-off work of art. Even our price tags tell a story. On the reverse of every tag the artists sign their names”.
“Monkeybiz has given me a face”
– Mankosi Modise
We help people to help themselves
“No one likes being poor.”
“No one likes to depend on hand-outs, or the charity of others. A project such as Monkeybiz addresses a very deep human need, in that it helps people to help themselves” – Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church of South Africa.
The majority of Monkeybiz artists have known poverty, neglect and deprivation for most of their lives. Against this background, Monkeybiz has achieved tremendous impact by providing a basic income to many families who would otherwise have been left destitute.
Monkeybiz pays the women immediately as the work is delivered on a market day. Every artist has a bank account, encouraging money management and helping with cash security. Monkeybiz pays the beaders according to the quality of their work, encouraging improvement, inspiring higher standards.
In the African culture the funeral and burial fund will be one of the most important savings they make. Monkeybiz has set up a Funeral and Burial fund for every beader on the register, where each beader’s contribution to this fund is matched by Monkeybiz.
Depending on funding, workshops are organised; some creative workshops with visiting artists, Beginner Beading and Refresher workshops, helping the beaders who may be struggling with quality. Educational, Entrepreneurial and Business Workshops to inspire growth of ideas and/or new business, even to understand the business of Monkeybiz.