Jewellery is often described as an ornament made of gold, silver or precious stones used for personal adornment. Common materials used in African jewellery include ivory, carved stone, bone, sea shells, animal teeth, animal hair, egg shells, wood, amber and even glass.
Jewellery is not just about beauty but also a symbol created based on long-standing traditions, and their designs convey important information about the wearer.
WEALTH AND STATUS
Jewellery has been used on the continent to convey different messages within the community – first being wealth. A staple in many dowry and marriage arrangements, it would reflect the estimated value of the union. Once the woman collected a sizeable jewellery stockpile, such as in the Saharan communities, it could be used as a form of currency. In dire times, it could be used to keep the family economically afloat.
Secondly, jewellery was often used to communicate status. Certain stones or craftsmanship were reserved for the chiefs or royalty of the community to highlight their position in society. It was also used to indicate marital status; such as in Maasai and Samburu communities. Additionally, they were used for physical and spiritual protection. Amulets would give positive energy to the wearer, while talismans would block any evil meant for the wearer.
In the last few years there has been a fascination and appreciation for all things African – in music, film and fashion. Maasai culture is recognised far and wide and for a long time has been the easiest identifier for people from Kenya.
However, with 44 tribes in Kenya, there are a lot of undiscovered pieces from other communities. Aside from the traditional beads, there are emerging artists who are using recyclable materials to create unique jewellery. The artists are not only creative but conscious about their craft.
Neema Mnjama’s brand is called Walove by Design. She registered her business in 2013 and started the jewellery line in 2016.
She evolved from doing clothes to focusing on jewellery, specifically chokers. To her it is more than just a business but also a movement.
Personalities such as Patricia Kihoro and hair blogger Craving Yellow have donned her chokers and this is only the beginning of greater things to come.
1. Tell us about yourself and what sparked your interest to get into fashion specifically jewellery making.
I'm a fashion artiste. I am truly passionate about creativity, mentorship and sharing the process. I have always known that I'm a creative, but my fashion interest got sparked in high school during my last art project. I did a dress that sparked my interest then eventually went to fashion school at Mcensal school of Fashion. I work towards trying different things within the fashion industry so I chose jewellery to explore how creative I can be and to explore what can be done uniquely.
2. You design jewellery but your standout pieces are the chokers. These chokers represent a celebration of sisterhood and friendship. Why did you feel compelled to attach meaning to your pieces?
For me it was important to attach meaning to the pieces. Friendships, relationships with your mother, friends, workmates, sisters and cousins are something every woman has to navigate and they are amazing once understood and intentional communication happens. Our pieces are to be used as gifts to anyone who purchases them as tokens of appreciation that you can adorn others or yourself with to feel cared for and appreciated.
3. What plans or hopes do you have for Walove by Design?
As of now we currently have a new collection we are launching and we are looking forward to presenting our new designs. We are also doing reintroductions of some of our past work in a unique way so people should look out for that.
The brand would not have gotten this far without the help of Wamwiri Kimachia and Rey Matata, who are my photographers, Grace Murema, the make-up artist, and Rachael Mbugua, the head artisan.
We are looking forward to a lot more collaborations with other companies and individuals. But most importantly want to see people impacted by the knowledge we present on our social media platforms.
I also look forward to how we can keep exploring our creativity through different projects and finding new ways to keep providing mentorship.
Evans Ngure looks at trash and sees treasure. Any discarded item in his hands gets a new lease of life in his hands as he remodels it into wearable art. He also does abstract mixed media collages, paintings, metal sculptures and furniture.
1. What does Afro-futurism mean to you and do you think that your art somewhat plays into this 'new' wave?
Afro futurism refers to an advanced form of African culture, one that we haven’t experienced yet. It’s achieved when we merge the traditional art to technology. It might appear to be dreamlike or fictitious at times.
I might not describe my art as such because it might limit my scope as a creator. My art is Evans Ngure as I believe everyone has something special and when you breathe life and freedom to what you do then there is no way to separate the two.
2. Your art not only has quite the online presence, but now you exhibit your pieces at Dusit Hotel? Why this location and not say at Maasai Market or an event/exhibition like most artists do?
I tried joining Maasai Market when I started out and failed due to misinformation from the artisans. You grow by pulling others up and not vice versa. I have held exhibitions at numerous galleries locally and I am holding my first solo show at the British Institute in Eastern Africa. Dusit D2 has been honourably offering artists with exhibition space for the last three years and I am proud to be part of their monthly showcase.
3. Apart from the fact that you do not use the common beads and ankara/kitenge material for your jewellery and other art pieces what do you think keeps people coming back for more?
The unique and purposeful form of my art. My art is full of life and freedom and when people can see themselves in what I create or what they desire, then they connect.
4. You have a company, Fufuka Limited. Do you have people who work under you or is every piece made just by you? If you were to put out a call for an intern what qualities should they possess?
I have several people I am mentoring at the moment; they are not at a production level yet but will be soon enough. Qualities? Well, you have to be humble, possess life and freedom, and have the desire for adventure and to invent.
5. Every artist has that one item that they are working on just for themselves, one that they would never sell no matter how much was offered. What is it?
I wouldn’t say how much because I never let it get to that point. (Laughs) My Commander in Chief of the Arts forces bag. This is a special hessian cloth bag that is a constant work in progress. If it comes to a point that I can no longer take it out then I will hang it as art on a wall.
Chepkemboi Mang’ira is the creator of #OwnYourCulture continental movement. She not only designs traditional unique design jewellery—neckpieces and head pieces—but also offers styling services with the Own Your Culture theme as well.
1. Own Your Culture's tagline is decolonising fashion one traditional necklace at a time. Why the term decolonising?
The reason we abandoned our beautiful art and accessories was largely due to colonisation. And today's fashion is largely influenced by the West.
This is where the term decolonisation comes in. For us as OwnYourCulture, it is a style inspired by who we were and are as a people, a style influenced by our rich design history and culture.
It is creating a style that is our own and from our own perspective – the always accessorised and bejewelled African.
2. Your brand is growing in leaps and bounds and even made it to the Oscars. How did that happen?
My colleague and creative director Perpetua Adoyo always keeps tabs on African creatives who have achieved great things in their careers.
She was introduced to the Watu Wote film star through a friend and we met up and she selected the earrings.
3. Your collaboration with Hairitage Chronicles was a huge success, encouraging naturalistas to incorporate African jewellery into their looks. How did it make you feel to see it all come together?
Thank you! It was actually very surreal to see everyone put their best fashion foot forward and incorporate different aspects of traditional African culture into their attire.
I absolutely loved all the creativity and effort that was put into the outfits. It was also proof that we are actually doing something as #OwnYourCulture, in terms of educating and showcasing the importance of our traditional designs.
This event was great insight for us, getting to see how our work has been understood and interpreted to the point of even inspiring and creating a market for young designers and entrepreneurs who deal with traditional accessories.
4. Do you feel like Maasai jewellery is overdone in terms of the go-to African jewellery for styling or accessorising? What would you advise people to explore with instead?
Yes and No. When I began the #OwnYourCulture tag my vision was to have as many people wearing their culture with style and pride.
I always and still, on many occasions, wear Maasai accessories – they are very stunning and to be honest, readily available. However it would be great to see more variety and originality and less plagiarism.
I started out with Maasai accessories and continued to research other communities. Maasai designs have been appropriated by non-Africans and this was actually what sparked the #OwnYourCulture movement.
I really believe if we take ownership of our own stories and design, it will be difficult to have others appropriate our culture.
But in my research, there's a lot of similarity in jewellery design across East African communities. The difference comes in colours and style of beading.
So what many may think is Maasai could be from a completely different tribe like the Meru or Kamba. I would advise people to visit our social media platforms to see the beautiful diversity of Kenyan and East African traditional beads and accessories.
5. What is your favourite piece of jewellery?
I love elaborate head pieces, they make me feel like a queen.
6. What is your take on cultural appropriation especially with non-Africans donning African jewellery?
Of course it is offensive not to mention the theft of a people's history and culture.