Across industries and disciplines, the world is seeking out South African creative skills and energy. What is sparking this interest and what are we getting out of it?
Luxury whisky brand Chivas Regal recently teamed up with local knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo to create the packaging for their limited-edition 18-year-old scotch. Then global megastars Mumford & Sons made a mini-album with Cape Town pop band Beatenberg. Late last year, Christie’s in London joined forces with leading local design foundation Southern Guild to exhibit 12 South African designers in its Piccadilly showrooms.
In August 2016, BMW announced it had turned, for the second time, to Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu to transform the sedan of an individual BMW 7 series (the first time was in 1991), which will be exhibited at this year’s Frieze Art Fair on 5–9 October in Regent’s Park, London. Days later, Belvedere Vodka unveiled its limited-edition RED bottle – also featuring Mahlangu’s traditional pattern work.
Laduma Ngxokolo and his design for Chivas Regal.
THE MAGIC OF MEANINGFUL PARTNERSHIP
It would seem that, across industries and disciplines, South African innovators are in hot demand. But what’s going on here is more than a token gesture of cultural exchange, in which Africa is arguably being used for an exotic effect – and expected to feel grateful for the ‘exposure’. Instead, there’s evidence that would-be offshore partners are looking our way for particular skills and perspectives, for the can’t-be-faked magic that comes from a truly meaningful partnership.
When it happens, the results can challenge stereotypes, enrich industries, and lead to lasting, symbiotic relationships.
‘IT OPENED OUR EYES TO WHAT CAN BE ACHIEVED’
For Trevyn McGowan, co-founder and director of Southern Guild, this isn’t a trend as much as a driving principle. Since its inception in 2008, Southern Guild has commissioned many collaborations, resulting in limited-edition collections of designer goods that are quickly snatched up at record prices, both in South Africa and abroad.
Perhaps the most important connection they’ve forged, she says, was between Los Angeles artists the Haas Brothers – superstar twins who have worked with Versace, Lady Gaga and well-known Cape Town-based Monkeybiz beadworkers. Nikolai and Simon Haas have been working with 10 Monkeybiz artisans for over two years to produce a collection of fantastical glass-beaded creatures. When it opened at Design Miami last year, the collection sold out immediately, and the project is now ongoing.
‘The Haas Brothers didn’t just send drawings or instructions of what to do,’ McGowan says. ‘They worked alongside the beaders, were inspired by them and even led by them. They picnicked with them on Lion’s Head and visited their homes.’
According to Nikolai Haas, this unusual process caused a permanent shift in the way they work. ‘Most well-known artists have teams [of artisans] in their studios but very few admit to, or consider, the massive creative input of their employees. Collaborating with Monkeybiz opened our eyes to what can be achieved when individuals are empowered with the responsibility of expression. It’s a concept we can now never lose.’
Haas Brothers and MonkeyBiz.
WHY HERE, WHY NOW?
But beyond the power of collaboration to offer fresh modes of thinking and working, what is drawing international interest to South Africa, specifically?
In a promotional video for BMW, Esther Mahlangu puts it this way: ‘When I painted the BMW, I used what was in my heart and mind. The painting was inspired by our traditional Ndebele designs. Now people come from all over the world, like America and France. They come here to learn how to draw and paint with me.’
"When I painted the BMW, I used what was in my heart and mind." ESTHER MAHLANGU - Artist
Esther Mahlangu and the painted BMW .
What she points to here is a certain authenticity, a long cultural lineage and, crucially, a skill that exists nowhere else in the world.
These drawcards ring true for award-winning South African jazz vocalist and composer Melanie Scholtz, who routinely juggles multiple international collaborations. ‘We grow up with music as a foundation in our families and this makes it innate for us. We also have a sound like no other people on the planet, tone-wise and rhythmically.’
SETTING PRECEDENTS, CREATING ROOM FOR GROWTH
On the South African end of these collaborations, the gains can be real and lasting. The artists whose works were showcased at Christie’s, for instance, came away with a career-defining price precedent set in pounds.
What’s more, says McGowan, their success has the knock-on effect of opening space for the next generation. ‘New artists are able to come up because of the void that’s created by our [artists] reaching the next level of professionalism and price points.’
But Scholtz also points out that it’s important to acknowledge that collaboration can add as much to local creative processes as it offers to offshore partners. ‘It makes for growth and development far beyond what you thought your boundaries and knowledge were. It means you have to react creatively to what’s there, and this makes for some interesting ideas if you are open to them.’
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