Five years ago, a good friend of mine, Barbara Jackson and her colleague, Shirley Fintz–both renowned ceramic artists in Cape Town, South Africa–took a small step that created an amazing chain of events. They simply admired the beaded bracelets worn by Mataphelo Ngaka, an apprentice working in Barbara’s ceramic studio. Mataphelo told them that her mother had made them. Both Barbara and Shirley have a great passion for African art and they found the beadwork beautiful. They also were very aware of the dire need for income among Cape Town’s poorest communities. They suggested that Mataphelo’s mother use her artistic talents to create dolls and fill the void in the market for innovative, original and authentic bead designs.
When Mataphelo returned with several beautifully beaded dolls, the three women immediately realized the potential for both marketing the dolls and reviving the almost forgotten African tradition of beadwork. With that, the non-profit organization, the MonkeyBiz Bead Project, was created as a means for disadvantaged women to make a living. The group has now grown to almost 400 woman crafters in the Macassar community near Cape Town, who are given complete freedom to use personal inspiration and interpretation to create their designs and are paid according to the aesthetic quality of each doll.
The women, many of them the sole breadwinners in their households, make roughly 1,000 dolls, animals and beaded pictures every month, with MonkeyBiz supplying the beads and cotton thread. MonkeyBiz then buys the items and markets and sells them locally and internationally.
In the South African spirit of “Ubuntu”, which is based on the belief that the individual and their community continuously depend on each other for survival, the MonkeyBiz Project is completely community driven. All profits go directly back into these communities for the crafters’ benefit.
Working from home, mothers can look after their families while running successful businesses, giving them a new sense of self-worth, pride and confidence. Often, the women gather in each other’s homes while they bead, creating a social support network strengthened by the bonds of common work. The opportunity to revisit and revive indigenous beading skills is also an important element of the bead-artists’ experiences.
Over the past few years, MonkeyBiz has grown prolifically, and its beaded products have appeared in a wide range of magazines, articles and galleries around the world. The beadwork also has achieved international acclaim from the arts fraternity. In July 2004, the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City exhibited special MonkeyBiz museum pieces. The famous home store in New York,ABC Carpet and Home, has created a MonkeyBiz section in their store. Recently, Donna Karan purchased several pieces for her DKNY store holiday windows.
“Each doll is different and unique in its own way,” said Donna. “It’s a gift that can put a smile on anyone’s face, and it’s for a cause that’s dear to my heart.”
Donna also helped set up a yoga program for the many women crafters who are HIV positive (see photo below). The vast selection of MonkeyBiz products suit all tastes and budgets, from inexpensive promotional love letters to sophisticated sculptures of museum quality. Perfect for the holiday season, the women have made beaded angel ornaments.