The advent of the festive season challenges us to think actively about the nature of giving. For one or two months a year, we reckon with what we have, and with what we have to give: tradition compels us to consider how best to convey love in the language of things.
The Christmas period is apt to foul your relationship with shopping. Buying and buying in profusion, you start to resent the emptiness that emanates from the excess of stuff you amass. In a world of boundless and compulsive consumption, there are few instances of items with the power to facilitate a real sense of connection — to establish a meaningful set of relations between the creators and the intended recipients. The Marigold co-operative’s handmade, loom-woven beads are one such instance.
Six years ago, Zimbabwe-born artist and Wits academic Joni Brenner received a long, thin strip of loomed beadwork from a women’s co-operative in Bulawayo. At this time, South Africans weren’t widely exposed to loomed beadwork, and it is quite unlike the local forms with which we are familiar. Rows of conjoined beads form a kind of rippling, ridged fabric, reminiscent — on a minute scale — of the scales on a reptile.
When she saw the sample strip, Brenner thought: “I wonder if it can be joined — it would make a great necklace. And, if it could be joined, I’d like three; and I’d like three in slightly different lengths, so that when you wear a set of them, they won’t all sit at the same point at your belly. And actually,” Brenner reflects, “in this moment, the design for these necklaces was born, and it was as random and arbitrary as that.”
The project came into being when the three necklaces she’d imagined materialised, and elicited interest from people at the Johannesburg Art Fair to which she wore them. In the years that have followed, the expert craftswomen at Marigold have worked with Brenner and this prototype with resounding success. Over time, the basic design has varied in width and length, but has otherwise remained unchanged. Within this form, though, there have been more than 65 small shifts to the patterns and geometries that the constraints of the loom allow.
Brenner says: “Working with the notion of variation on a theme, or making constant small shifts, means that the necklaces have an inbuilt possibility for never ending.” In her own artistic work, Brenner explores this kind of repetition, doing the same thing over and over again, each time as if for the first, and each time as if for the last time. “I think we meet on those grounds: I work like that, and they work like that, and we share that language,” she says of her relationship with the beaders at Marigold.
The demand for the Marigold necklaces is perennial, and intensified by their relative scarcity. They are available only at pop-up shops, at the Kim Sacks African Art and Design Gallery, and through Cinda Hunter’s off-the-beaten-track shop, Beloved Things. This isn’t a marketing stratagy — it’s an artistic safeguard, a foil to the culture of mass production that might otherwise erode the sense of playfulness and artistry that sustains co-operatives such as Marigold. With an output of only about 150 necklaces a month, the creative integrity of the enterprise is protected.
On November 30th 2017, a visual chronicle of the evolution of Marigold launched at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Making Marigold: Beaders of Bulawayo, written by Brenner and Elizabeth Burroughs, is a captivating visual narrative. The story of Brenner’s collision with the women of Marigold is, at its core, a story about art. It is a testament to the transformative potential of artistic collaboration, and it is an engagement with the contingencies of an investment in art as a means of creating and sustaining employment.
The book is not, Brenner states, a catalogue of beadwork. It is, rather, a captivating tribute to the tremendous skill and fortitude of the Marigold co-operative; and photographer Liz Whitter’s extraordinary facility for rendering the beadwork uncannily animate on paper establishes the book as a covetable piece of art in itself. “The beadwork will survive, and it will always be there to be analysed and written about; but the kind of stories that don’t survive are the stories of who made the necklaces, and why; the stories of how people came to be part of a co-operative, and how they learnt the practise; and the trials and tribulations of sustaining a co-operative — this kind of information is so easily lost to history,” Brenner says. The book honours both the minutiae of one specific co-operative and the remarkable quality of its collective output, in an arresting array of more than 200 photographs, and narrative vignettes.
The book will officially launch in South Africa on January 24, at the Strauss & Co Fine Art Auctioneers in Johannesburg. However, a limited number of copies will be available at Love Books in December and via palimpsest.com. Like the necklaces, Making Marigold: Beaders of Bulawayo promises to be a truly precious item, and worth braving the ennui of Christmas shopping to possess.