Beaded World Map of the World Bead Trade!

(We will think of a better name for it before we finish making it!)

There's a conversation we find ourselves repeatedly having in our shops. We'll brag to a visitor about the amazing Japanese glass seed beads we use in our work, and they'll say 'oh, why don't you use South African ones?'. We'll explain that South Africa doesn't have, and never has had, a glass seed bead factory. All of the beads that have ever been used in South African beadwork have been imported. At this point we discover quite how Eurocentric many of our education systems are, because many people's next assumption is that glass seed beads must therefore have arrived with European sailors and colonisers. 

The world trade in small glass beads is, in fact, at least three centuries older than Christianity. Britain was busy being invaded by the Belgics and Julius Caesar when the trade was getting underway in the pacific. As Peter Francis Jr. states in his book 'Asia's Maritime Bead Trade, 300BC to the Present':

"The Indo-Pacific bead industry produced one of, if not the, most widespread and ubiquitous trade items of all time, surviving well over 2000 years... The study of these small beads may furnish clues to wider questions being asked by scholars about the past. They have the potential to generate hypotheses about the historical relations between people."

Laurence and I decided that we needed to create a piece of art that could communicate the incredible history of glass seed beads and their trade. We began the planning a few weeks ago and we are finally ready to start stringing it. All 560 lines of it!

A few years ago we developed a system for making enormous beaded artworks using 5mm glass seed beads, which make a solid, yet transparent image. The largest we ever made was nine metres wide and three metres tall. It features in this video about the commissioning artist, Bili Bidjocka:

Our current, self-commissioned piece, is in one way less ambitious - it'll only be 2.8 metres wide. What is lacks in width, however, it more than makes up for in complexity!

When we embarked upon this project, I rather naively assumed that someone would have already made a visual representation of the history of the glass bead trade. Ha! I have searched high and low and am yet to find such a map! So what began as a visual arts project has now also become an academic exercise in trying to get my hands on as much data as possible. This project has reminded me of a feeling I had long forgotten. Whilst researching essays on exchange at the University of British Columbia I would find that every piece of work threatened to become a thesis. Every text referenced in another was available to me in the absurdly well stocked library or online. (This was never a problem at the University of Glasgow, where every book I wanted had to be brought up from London at considerable expense!)

This project too is threatening to become a thesis. I had no idea of the extent of industry and trade in the Pacific for the past few thousand years! We kept saying to ourselves 'well, if we begin on the eastern side of the map, we can keep researching as we work, because trans-Pacific bead trading only began relatively recently', so we can be sure we know all the trade routes we need to indicate there at least until we get to the Philippines'. How wrong we were. The Chinese were exporting beads to Manila in the 16th century which were then taken to Mexico by the Spanish, and in the 18th century "The Russians, who were barred from using Chinese ports, bought beads along the Mongolian border and took them during their first expedition to Alaska" (Francis Jr, 2002, p67). 

Because we are desperate to start work, and if we waited until I was sure I had read everything on the subject it would take years, we have had to accept that this artwork will not be a definitive academic data source, but rather a beautiful representation of some of the many, many trade routes of glass beads across the globe across time.

I'll be posting lots of photographs and intriguing findings from my research as time goes on. For now, here are a few pictures of Laurence and I setting up our paper map which will guide our stringing. When we finish we'll have a time-lapse video of the whole piece being made. And if you happen to be in Newlands, Cape Town in the next few weeks, please pop in to Montebello, and you'll be able to see it in progress for yourself!

Time For Some Colour

It is difficult to overstate the degree of adoration I hold for Laura Mvula. Not only is she an incredibly talented, insightful and compassionate person, she also brings together my two worlds! Like me she is from the UK Midlands, and like me she is madly in love with South Africa. The first time I saw one of her videos I couldn't believe the way she had captured the beauty of this country, and I was assuming that she was South African. When I found out that we are from the same place I could barely believe it. 

This video is set in the Bo Kaap, and area of Cape Town only a few kilometres from both of our shops. Enjoy!

Beautiful Women of JL Zwane

I often feel torn in my writing here. I want to write of the wonders of Cape Town, to act as unofficial tourist guide and tell you of all the amazing things to be found here. Nowhere on earth have I witnessed such scenery, such incredible food and wine, such culture and such a vibrant creative economy. It is important to talk about these things; to bring to light the layers of beauty and nuance of this place. Doing so, however, always makes me feel like I am betraying the people I love. Much as this is, in so many ways, an astonishingly beautiful place, it is also terribly, terribly ugly. 

Last night I dreamed of a massacre. Humans flung over walls, body parts littering the streets. Such dreams aren't unusual for me. They are my subconscious' desperate attempt to process the absurdities of life here. People I love dearly have daily experiences of systemic exclusion and discrimination, which not only damage their souls but also leave them in physical danger. Whether it is doctors who are not held to account when a colleague's baby's heart defect is undetected ('you mustn't worry so much Mummy, he is just chesty because it is winter'), leading to his profound disability and eventual painful death, or police who aren't even called when a child goes missing or someone narrowly escapes gang rape because it is pointless to try. There is the terrible, soul-destroying, life limiting slow burn of daily micro-aggressions, and the shocking degree of violence facilitated by centuries of theft and murder. My British compatriots who look back nostalgically upon the days of colonialism are incomprehensible to me. To live in South Africa with your eyes opened is to understand the true depth of inhumanity perpetrated under that system in the past, and which continues to be perpetrated in today's proto-colonial environment. All this in a city full of mansions and expensive cars.

I need to add a very large caveat here. I only experience these things by proxy. The daily micro-aggressions are not aimed at me. I do not fear the police. I watch beautiful, talented, black friend after friend move to Johannesburg or overseas because Cape Town's economy does not serve them, refuses, in fact, to do so. The pain of losing them is terrible, but it is nothing compared to feeling so unwelcome and alienated in one's own country. I have never felt that alienation. Not at home, and not here either. I watch as kind, atrociously underpaid women work together to emotionally comfort and ease the physical pain of a profoundly disabled young woman. I watch them in awe, but I am not the one who has to do that daily work, and travel home on unsafe transport to inadequate housing. It is only through the eyes of others that I am able to see these things, only because they have honoured me with their trust.

So it is that the experience of living in this city is one of profound cognitive dissonance. It is possibly the world's most beautiful and the world's ugliest city. The ugliness comes not only from the atrocities against people's bodies and souls, but from the fact that this city genuinely has the resources to overcome these things. There is wealth here beyond my wildest imaginings. The poverty is one of willingness, imagination, kindness and courage, not money.

In the midst of this dissonance I sought comfort in the familiar, in music and community. When I was growing up I was incredibly lucky to be exposed, via the Iona Community, to Xhosa music. I could sing pretty accurately in Xhosa long before I lived here. (A privilege that is not extended even to children in Cape Town's wealthy schools!) The Iona Community maintained a connection with a church nearby my home, JL Zwane Presbyterian, so once I finally obtained my driver's license seven years ago, I began to attend.

My relationship with religion is a complicated one, and I won't elaborate on that for now. What I wish to speak about today is the coping skills I have learned through being welcomed into the community of JL Zwane. The importance of the routine of meeting weekly to sing, dance, cry, laugh and think together cannot be overstated. It is a group of people who understand the importance of action as well as words. It is, in short, the tradition I grew up in; one which marries good music and supportive community with the imperative of working for social justice.

Within JL Zwane there are many clubs and societies, one of which is Young Women. A supportive, committed group of women, who have taught me the importance of straight talking self expression, and the most radical act of self love.

Last year we decided to celebrate our beauty with a photoshoot. I was honoured to be the photographer. We used Beloved's vast studio space and spent a few hours having a lot of fun. We took hundreds of photos, and choosing between them hasn't been easy. Nevertheless, here are a few of my favourites. 

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I'll be posting more images on our Instagram account over the next couple of months.

I wish a peaceful, kind, good week to my friends at JL Zwane, and to all our Beloved family, especially those whose daily work involves fighting structural injustice. You are the visionaries this city desperately needs.

The Beloved Body

There is an enormous amount of insight to be gained from watching women try on jewellery. Sometimes it is just joyful. A woman will put on a pair of earrings, lift the mirror, and smile at her reflection. The earrings bring out something in her face that she has always liked. Or they compliment the colour of her eyes, and she remembers her mother saying what a deep blue her eyes are, how special they are. Or the earrings express a part of her personality that her face alone cannot, and she is excited, as all humans are upon such a discovery, that she has found a means through material culture to show the world a little of her identity. 

The latter is always the greatest joy to me. Over eight years I've had the privilege of customers, and friends, and customers who have become friends, telling me of the conversations they have had whilst wearing their Beloved pieces. People on the street, on buses, on trains, senior colleagues who haven't previously noticed them, or the cleaner on their floor who they have always wanted to engage but never knew how, these people will stop them and say ‘those earrings’ or ‘that necklace’, ‘I have never seen anything like it. Where did you find it, who made it, what is it made from?’

This, you see, was my dream in creating Beloved. I grew up in a deeply egalitarian household. My father, an Anglican vicar, had a congregation whose circumstances spanned the spectrum of human experience. Whether a judge, a struggling artist, a banker, a school teacher, a refugee fleeing torture, a person who could not find employment or love, my father would do his level best to make you welcome in our church and in our home. With this in mind, I never wanted to create cultural artefacts that enabled or exacerbated socio-economic divides. I never wanted someone to look at a person wearing one of our pieces and think ‘that person is too fancy, they would never want to speak to me’. The feedback I receive tells me that we have managed to avoid that trap, and I am extremely grateful for this.

The purpose of this post, however, is to talk about the women whose faces do not light up when they try on a piece that they love. From afar they spot our work, see something in it that expresses something of who they are, and make their way to our stand to look, touch, and try. I know they love it before they put it on. Eight years in this business has taught me to see the glint in someone's eye that betrays their desire for a piece. I am so happy when I see that. They put it on, lift the mirror to their face, and an instant sadness hits them. Quickly they take it off. ‘I don't have a nice enough neck for those. It is made for those young women with tall necks.’ Or ‘If I wear this it will draw attention to my scars’. Some women are in so much pain over the way they feel about their body that they don't even notice the jewellery when they lift that mirror.

It is this reaction that breaks my heart. Not because of the lost sale, but because I can all too readily identify with their fear. Women are taught to embody the hatred levelled at them. When we say ‘I'm too x’ (x= fat/thin/tall/short/wrinkly) what we are often really saying is ‘I am not good enough’. In a patriarchal, ageist, racist, heteronormative, aesthetically obsessed culture, there are negative messages coming at us from every angle to keep us hungry for products to ‘fix’ us, and to ensure that women have an extra barrier to self acceptance and growth. These messages are absorbed into our skin like cocoa butter, into our minds like song lyrics, they are there ready and waiting to be used by our hearts to explain why we cannot find the loving acceptance that we seek, to make us acquiesce to the idea that we are not good enough, to make us endlessly strive for acceptance in a society that has no intention of fully validating us.

I am writing this on the third anniversary of my double mastectomy. It is not an easy thing to write about, and it is tempting to preserve a self-protective silence. Yet, I am also driven to speak because the experience taught me, and continues to teach me, so much about the messages I have absorbed about my body.

One of the means by which I told myself I was not good enough in the past was to point to my stomach. Even when I lost a lot of weight my tummy was stubborn. It remained to taunt me. I strove constantly to hide it, to manage it. I am not alone in this; there is a reason that spanks have been so successful! I wished, I prayed it would be flat and tiny, resented its presence daily. Then in February 2014 I was diagnosed with an early form of breast cancer. 

The early days were dominated by discussions of risk, cause, treatment options, recurrence rates, genetic testing, and frantic calls to my medical insurance company. As that noise died down, as the path became clear to me, we turned to reconstruction options. 

Imagine my utter shock when I learned that my long-hated tummy was to be my salvation. The most recent development in breast reconstructive surgery involves taking a person’s outer stomach tissue, and using it to make new breasts. Breasts that are warm, soft, that age with the rest of you. The operation can only be done if you have ‘enough’ tissue to spare.

So this time last year I was saying goodbye to a part of myself that I had always hated, and now was so utterly grateful for. I had wasted years disparaging my saving grace.

I cannot say this to the stranger at my shop who picks up our mirror and recoils. Yet I am desperate to. I want to grab them by the shoulders and say ‘you are perfect, you belong, you are beautiful just the way you are and you deserve to express yourself like anyone else’. Instead I have to watch them walk away deflated.

I'm writing this in the hope that if you are one of the people who owns our pieces, and there are days when you dare not wear it for fear of drawing attention to yourself, or if you ever wonder ‘Was this really made for young/pretty/skinny/*insert label here* women? Am I really their target audience?’, you will know that you are the person we had in mind when we made your piece. We had in mind your scars, your ‘short’ neck, your ‘thick’ wrist, your ‘dry’ skin, and we don't care for the excuses society has used to put you down. We care about the content of your character, and if you have chosen to express that character through wearing Beloved then we could not be more honoured.

Music and Taxes

I sometimes have a rather interesting conversation in one of my shops. A visitor will look at our work, ask if I am the designer, and say 'it must be lovely to work with beads all day'. Yah, I can imagine it would be! The thing you're warned of continually when you begin a business based on your passion is that you'll only get to spend about 10% of your time exploring that passion, and the other 90% will be strategic planning, spreadsheets, procurement headaches, and taxes. It's still worth it though. Lucky for me I really love the people I get to work with every day. The Beloved team is a group of incredibly dedicated, kind and intelligent women, so whenever I'm tempted to moan about the spreadsheets or tax paperwork, I am reminded that it is work worth doing.

The other day I sat down to do a day of financial statements (we grew again, yeay!), and thought that I would treat myself to a new album to listen to while I did so. By complete chance I came across Zaneliza: How The Water Moves by Msaki. What a treat! She's so amazing she's competing for space in my heart with Simphiwe Dana, Thandiswa Mazwai and Laura Mvula (it's ok, I'll just have to make some extra room). 

So if you're faced with a boring work task today, I would highly recommend this album to get you through the day!

Happy New Year, District Six

My career in Cape Town began in District Six. My father's assistant priest had met the priest of St Mark's, Father John Oliver, and put me in touch at the age of 18, when I was floundering in my search for belonging and purpose. He introduced me to the lovely Revd Rachel Mash, and I soon found myself working with her in the Anglican Church's offices at the edge of District Six.

An image I took of District Six when I was twenty-three.

An image I took of District Six when I was twenty-three.

I would catch the taxi (a small public bus) from Lansdowne to Claremont, then from Claremont to Woodstock, and walk up the steep hill of Searle Street. Walking up that street always felt like a lottery. You know how on Google Maps density of traffic is marked in red, orange and green? Anyone walking in Cape Town on regular routes could make you a similar map showing the danger zones, the grey zones, and the safe zones. Searle Street had all three. These days there is a fancy office block half way, with a fancy Spar to match! Back then it was just a corner store where I would stop to buy airtime. I would allow myself one sms/text message a day to my mum. The managers of Spar seem to have realised that their greatest security threat comes from the adjacent footbridge across the freeway, so there is frequently a guard posted there. When I used to walk that was the scariest part. Most pedestrians in Cape Town will tell you that footbridges are where people of ill intent will often lurk. Once I was over that bridge, it was past the house where the man with the nice border collie lived, and up into my office.

For a while before that job I lived in University Estate, adjacent to District Six. I would walk into town sometimes, if I was feeling brave. The Apartheid government had decimated District Six, , beginning in 1966 when it was declared a 'whites only area' under the Group Areas Act, eventually forcefully removing more than 60,000 people. It had been a vibrant, multi-racial community. For decades now it has been a wasteland of weeds and rubble, with only a few of the long promised houses being rebuilt. It is a fitting reminder of the wasteful cruelty of Apartheid. 

My career moved me away from District Six, out into Khayelitsha, Observatory, Athlone, Newlands, even as far as Westlake. I was away for years. Two years ago, I began the search for new studio space. We had loved being in Newlands, but the long climb up the hill for our disabled employees, the mordor-like weather, and the lack of privacy of a studio open to the public meant that we felt it was time for a new workplace.

'Anywhere but Woodstock' I said. This was for two reasons. Woodstock was the only place that I had been robbed at knife point, which as I'm sure you can imagine, is rather off-putting. More importantly, Woodstock is Cape Town's 'up and coming' area. In other words, it is undergoing a ruthless gentrification, using white capital and the power of property law, instead of the Group Areas Act, to yet again destroy communities and drive poorer people further out of the city. As is often the case, the creative industries came first. They brought with them the demand, quickly met, for fancy coffee shops, bicycle lanes, renovated yet characterful property, and an increased private security presence, and lent the area an aura of accessible 'authenticity'. This inevitably led in turn to press coverage and a 'buzz' which excited city planners and property developers, and terrified residents who have lived here for generations.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found the perfect studio on the border of Woodstock and District Six! This had not been my plan or intention. The studio is in a very old industrial building (built in 1934), and nearby residences seem unthreatened by its presence. It's also within walking distance for three of our staff, and accessible by public transport for everyone else. I hope we made the right choice.

Now my office window looks right out to Searle Street and the barren land of District Six beyond. I find myself looking at that land, dreaming of it once again being a place where working people could afford to live.

There are a couple of favourite pieces of art that I'm particularly obsessed with in relation to District Six at the moment.

It took me a while to realise that the first piece was indeed a work of art, it is so genius. The Apartheid government, as part of the erasure of peoples' history, had renamed the area 'Zonnebloem', Afrikaans for 'sunflower'. This hadn't been rectified for twenty years, so Haroon Gunn-Salie took it upon himself to do that work. When I first saw it I thought 'oh good, the City finally fixed it'! It wasn't them, of course, but they haven't dared change it back. You can watch the video here:

The second piece is a music video I've written about before. It's by local band Freshlyground. The imagery of South Africa and South Africans within it is just glorious. The scenes of a fire being put out are of District Six.

If you aren't from Cape Town, or if you are and have never been, I would highly recommend the District Six Museum. It's a beautiful, contemplative space, and deeply informative. There are also some great audio tours of Woodstock on Voicemap. "Changing Neighbourhoods: Walmer Estate and Upper Woodstock" is one I'll be doing myself soon.

Belated happy new year Beloved friends, and happy new year, District Six.

Hello!

Finally, after many months of broken promises, I have made a new website for our Beloved work. Hooray! It is going live on the very day that I depart for Paris, to show our work at Maison et Objet, an absolutely enormous and ridiculously beautiful trade show in Paris.

A preview of our display.

A preview of our display.

It is the second time I will ever show our work at an international trade fair. The last time was three years ago in New York, shortly after which the drama of an early breast cancer diagnosis ensued. I gave myself a couple of years off trade shows. So getting my head into gear for trade show hasn't been the easiest of tasks. Luckily I have the support of the CBI, a Dutch government programme to support exports to the North from the global South. They have kept me on track!

The cards have been printed in the UK, so I won't get to hold them until my mum arrives in Paris. Can't wait!

The cards have been printed in the UK, so I won't get to hold them until my mum arrives in Paris. Can't wait!

So, the catalogues and business cards are printed, the outfits are sewn and packed, the samples carefully made, wooden display stands meticulously sanded in my garage (my poor neighbours!), flights, accommodation, and insurance bought, and off I go.

When I'm all done, a mere week and two days from now, I hope to transform some of the titles listed in my notebook into actual blog posts. In the mean time, I'll share photos from Paris. Yeay!