South African street art wired for success

Janine Erasmus

Wire art is as unique a South African cultural icon as is boerewors, kwaito and Nelson Mandela. Across the country street vendors sell anything from Christmas decorations and wine racks to fruit bowls and representations of popular characters from animated films. These creations are works of art in their own right, delicately formed, colourfully decorated with beads and pieces of tin can, and lovingly finished off – plainly the work of talented hands.

This art form has been given a boost by the Streetwires wire art project. With a small team of two artists and two marketing coordinators, the three founders – Winston Rangwani, Patrick Schofield and Anton Ressel – set out in 2000 to establish a formal business structure to support wire artists in Cape Town, and to tackle the ever-present problem of unemployment in South Africa by building on traditional skills that were already in place. Today Streetwires provides a creative outlet for more than 100 men and women, all of whom were previously unemployed. The project supplies skills training, raw materials and support, and encourages individual expression and an attitude of responsibility in taking control of the future.

The Streetwires catalogue is bursting with beautiful and imaginative items. The Nguni range, featuring the beloved Nguni cattle farmed for hundreds of years by the Xhosa people, has been thoroughly researched and each piece is accurately crafted in terms of patterning and form. There are other Southern African wild animals and birds – the guinea fowl, the lion, the zebra and giraffe. Christmas baubles and stars are always popular, and the demand for the range of battery-operated radios outstrips the supply.

In January 2006 Streetwires opened a workshop in the Ngwenya Glass Village, a craft centre in Muldersdrift, west of Johannesburg. Under the guidance of Joseph Ketche, who was transferred from Cape Town to head up the Joburg operation, the new Streetwires initiative is gaining ground and enjoying extensive support from the locals.

“Ninety-nine percent of our items are sold to the local market,” says Ketche, “whereas about 75% of the Cape Town sales are destined for overseas. It’s a completely different environment, because we’ve found that while tourists like to buy game animals and larger goods, people in Joburg prefer smaller items such as keyrings, magnets, fashion accessories such as earrings and brooches, and so on. We’ve had to adjust our output accordingly.”

It was tough having to start from the ground up, he explains, but so far 30 people have been trained in Joburg. Some have been retained by Streetwires and others have gone on to establish their own businesses. “We found that people who were not accustomed to working with their hands struggled to master the techniques. Some of them became disheartened and dropped out, but others persevered, and in fact it was often the case that we would come across a person who had a lot of talent but was just waiting for an outlet for that creativity.”

Before embarking on the Muldersdrift expansion, Streetwires undertook a successful pilot project in Clanwilliam, a town located in the Cederberg region of the Western Cape province. The Clanwilliam Rural Wire Art Centre was established with a view to community development, but it also turned out to be a trial run for the setting up of the operation in Joburg.

Says Ketche, “We left the people in the Clanwilliam community with all the equipment and skills needed to carry on with a wire-work enterprise – we taught them how to hold the pliers, how to select the gauge of the wire and the size of the bead, how to market themselves.”

This is a vital component of the Streetwires project – skills development and transfer creates a ripple effect that is felt throughout the community, and the result is upliftment and empowerment. The establishment of the facility in Clanwilliam was supported by the Department of Arts and Culture and there are plans to open other such centres around South Africa, particularly in areas that are in need of social development. Streetwires is currently establishing a dedicated training and development division which will focus intensively on outreach projects, skills training and artist development.

Streetwires as a community development project is indeed an inspiration. The issue of unemployment, which so easily leads to poverty and crime, is one that Streetwires has tackled by helping previously unemployed South Africans to earn a livelihood in a meaningful, sustainable way. The company has not only enabled its artists to sell their products overseas but has also expanded its product availability into local retail stores around the country, in addition to the success of the Clanwilliam initiative and the opening of the Joburg branch. A large proportion of Streetwires’ work is made on commission and because items can easily carry branding, they work well as corporate gifts.

Street wire art, highly sought after by tourists and locals alike, shows in the most vibrant and vivid way that South Africans are creative and innovative with even the most simple materials at their fingertips, and in the most humble of surroundings, originating as it did in rural areas. Because the pieces are made by hand each one is unique, and now the products of this thriving art form are found in homes, galleries and even in the foyers and offices of corporate buildings all around the world.

Useful links