Madoda Hlongwane blows a glass by designer Laurie Wiid van Heerden
Madoda Hlongwane blows a glass by designer Laurie Wiid van Heerden

Watching glass being blown is like watching ballet. A hot, fiery, ballet in which the dancers swan around burning furnaces, brandishing molten glass.

That's how it looks from the Ngwenya Glass factory's elevated viewing gallery as the team work together, blowing the tableware and animal figurines for which they have become so famous.

I am here for the celebration of the Swazi company's 30th birthday. Six world-renowned glass blowers - from Italy, the Netherlands, the UK and Australia - have been invited to work with the local team.

Also on the guest list are several South African designers, invited to come up with ideas for high-end, commercially viable glass pieces, which the international glass blowers will prototype before training the local team to produce.

Alix Prettejohn remembers the day her husband, Richard, and son Chas bought the liquidated factory. "We knew nothing about glass," she says. "We moved from East London to Swaziland and were faced with a derelict factory, with wattle growing through the cement. There were cobwebs and dead rats. We had no idea where to start."

They started by tracking down a former Swazi Glass employee, Sibusiso Mhlanga, and asking him to lead the revival of the newly reopened and renamed Ngwenya Glass factory.

"Thanks to Sibusiso, here we are, 30 years later," says Alix. "And today we have one of the top glass-blowers visiting us. From Venice! It goes to show that if you put your mind to it you really can do anything you want."

Back in the factory, I watch the various teams work wordlessly together, creating their own language as they move. One tap of a workbench sees four blowers swing into position while a subtle hand-gesture directs a blow-pipe into place at just the right moment. Time, like the glass itself, is fluid here, with urgency and patience required in equal measure.

Every piece produced in the factory starts as a glowing ball on the end of a blow-pipe, and it's nothing short of remarkable watching the amorphous blob take shape.

Venetian glass-blower Davide Salvadore at work on his kudu creation
Venetian glass-blower Davide Salvadore at work on his kudu creation

I stand among a 20-strong crowd of Ngwenya staff, mesmerised as we watch the "maestro" - Davide Salvadore from Murano, Italy - take a ball of molten glass from the furnace.

Salvadore's family has been blowing glass since the 1650s and his is one of 60-odd studios that remain on the island of Murano. His works sell for up to $50,000 (about R660,000) apiece in international shows. Here at Ngwenya he has chosen to make a kudu, an animal he's never seen in the flesh, from a design by local glass-blower Bhekithemba Tshapile.

The kudu begins to take shape as Salvadore blows into the pipe, twists, turns, and picks at the glass with callipers. The process is an archaic one and many of the machines in the factory are more than 100 years old.

"If ancient Roman glass-blowers were to come here, they'd be familiar with most of the processes," says Australian glass artist Tim Shaw. "It hasn't changed much over the centuries."

According to Chas, it is also a dying art form. "These guys are a rare breed," he says of the global visitors.

In the hills of Swaziland, however, the art of glass is going strong. Ngwenya Glass opened in 1987 with four staff members. Today it employs 70 people. The products, made exclusively from recycled glass, are exported around the world and this birthday workshop will hopefully lead to a range of new designer items for Ngwenya to produce and sell.

Designs from the Ngwenya Glass workshop
Designs from the Ngwenya Glass workshop

Peter Bremers, the Dutch master-blower who co-ordinated the workshop, first came to Swaziland 13 years ago to work with Chas.

"Back then I designed a range for Ngwenya as a volunteer. I returned the next year and told Chas it's ridiculous to bring out a Dutch designer to create African designs. I really felt we needed to use local talent."

That's how the idea for the workshop was born, and with designers such as Laurie Wiid, Dokter and Misses, Joe Paine and Ceramic Matters, among others, on board, and a transfer of skills from top international talents, the ancient art form is experiencing an African revival. The factory's hot, fiery ballet continues, but now to a different tune.


• All Ngwenya products are made from recycled glass.

• The glass is collected by the local community, who are paid for it.

• Ngwenya only uses clear glass in their production, but they also collect coloured glass, which they recycle and use to make bricks for the local community.

• The furnaces at Ngwenya are fuelled using old oil from Swaziland's KFC outlets.

• Only the wood of invasive exotic trees is used to create moulds in the factory.

• Ngwenya uses old newspapers as protectors in the production process and for wrapping glass products.

Thatcher was a guest of Woolworths. Ngwenya glassware is available at Woolworths as part of the Studio.W range.

This article was originally published by the Sunday Times.You can view the original article here.

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