A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Monkey Business

The colour almost overwhelms. The talent and skills astound. When I'll be looking back, thinking about my time visiting Monkeybiz Bead Project, I’ll think about women exploring their creativity, revitalising the craft industry and recreating their own lives in the process.

Monkeybiz is a non profit company which seeks to ‘create employment’, ‘empower women’, and ‘preserve and nurture’ the tradition of South African beadwork’. Just one step into the place, and you know that they are indeed on track.

I met up with Barbara Jackson, originally a ceramicist, who set up with Monkeybiz alongside Mathapelo Ngaka and Shirley Fintz, also artists. Barbara told me a little about her own background, and how Monkeybiz came about.

“I am a ceramicist by profession, and I had a chance meeting with Mathapelo, who is from the community of Kaileshya. That was seven years ago. During the 80s, the apartheid years in South Africa, I taught ceramics at a black art school called community arts project. It was quite a politicised art school in those days, and we were always getting hassle by the police! As a white person it was not the norm to be teaching at a black school, but it was the most tremendous opportunity to come into contact with black artists. I was aware of people’s struggles and unemployment and poverty, and also of the remarkable talent that existed.
I started it Monkeybiz because it was the right time in my life to put something back. I also felt embarrassed at what was being sold in the shops to tourists; kitch curios which reflected colonialism. They were mass producing and being exploited’.

Now groups of women artists have the opportunity to bead in their homes, and then promote their craft through Monkeybiz.

Over the years Monkeybiz has also become an outspoken advocate on HIV/ Aids issues. In 2003 they produced a HIV educational book, which showcased the women’s work, while at the same time explaining the health implications and prevention techniques around the virus. Through the profits of the business, Monkeybiz have also set up a HIV/ Aids ‘Wellness’ Clinic, which supports the women as they cope with the virus.

I popped into their Wellness Clinic to see the place in action. Among brightly coloured painting and photos, in a light, friendly room, the women were just winding down after a yoga class, and preparing for a discussion on managing their health.

‘There is a sense of hope here’, Mathapelo proclaimed. And she is right.
This really is a place which is positive about being positive.

(one of the artist's children at the wellness centre)


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