What African Curio to buy
(a version of this article was published on the African Budget Safaris Blog)
Curio - 'a rare, unusual, or intriguing object'
As we continue to travel and explore the globe, taking a little something home still sits high on the agenda. Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of tourists and the consumers taste for cheap goods, it is rather difficult to find something truly unusual anymore.
The modern day curio economy
Africa has a huge informal economy based around the sale of curios and craft. Traditionally this includes wood carvings, wire makers, basket weaving, beading, ceramic work and even painting. Sadly, many of the finer craft methods have been lost due to the demands of the typical buyer that they are feeding. The average tourist taste is for cheap and cheerful with a clear 'African' aesthetic. Nothing is more stifling (and depressing) for a creative entreprenuer than having to fill this type of narrow and prescriptive demand in order to keep your business alive.
These entrepreneurs do it though with dedication and pride, as survival is dependent on sales and often the only income for a family. Crafts people are employed to make these items and then others sell them, often buying them wholesale, just like any retail outlet would normally work.
This doesn't mean though that these items have any less beauty or worth just because they are made in bulk. The intricacy and detail of a small wire keyring, tin car or wooden carving is incredible and I highly recommend you buy one.
The Chinese made African Curio
Like everywhere in the world, South Africa has had a deluge of goods made in the Far East. Most commonly found in the curio markets are the necklaces and other jewelry. Because these necklaces have that ambiguous 'tribal' look they tend to sell like hot cakes. They are also cheap. I have seen this 'jewellery' sold in road side stalls and markets from South Africa to Kenya to Indonesia.
Greenmarket Square in Cape Town – home to some amazing local craft but also a lot of cheap, chinese imports.
Adaption of Craft into Art
It's not all like this though, some Crafters have managed to continue making their own goods with artistic integrity whilst still running a successful business. This is where true artistry and originality emerge – to stay creative and commercially viable is an art in itself.
Look out for these gems and take something home that will still hold its appeal a few years down the line and out of it's 'African' context.
Craft across Africa
Wood carvings in Malawi
Masai Women in the Masai Mara wearing traditonal jewellery and Cotton Kanga Clothes
South Africa has probably blurred the lines the most successfully between craft, art and design. Cape Town has a thriving design industry that is African inspired but very contemporary in it's presentation. The Watershed in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront, is home to a selection of craft, contemporary design and fashion.
Roger Bongolomba at work on his stand at The Watershed
Johannesburg's Maboneng Precinct is also definitely worth a visit to get a feel for what South African designers and artists are doing. Look out for the IwasshotinJoburg Studio in Arts on Main in Maboneng. They give street kids camera's and then mentor them on photography and turning these photo into other products
A photograph taken by one of the students taking part in the IwasshotinJoburg project
Uganda and Rwanda (as well as most of West Africa) are the best places to buy African Wax Print Fabrics. These brightly coloured fabrics are worn by women across the continent. The central markets usually have an area dedicated to fabric, and tailors on site can make up whatever you need.
Wax Prints Stand in West Africa