When the opportunity crossed Nikki Robertson’s path to live and work alongside rural women artisans, she grabbed it with both hands. A leap of faith that resulted in her heading up a social enterprise that makes exquisite (and award-winning), fine African jewellery.
When Nikki Robertson was selected as one of the graduates to go and live and work in St Lucia as part of a creative industries skills development programme, she didn’t hesitate. Resigning from her graphic design position, she left her home in Joburg and headed down to KZN, where she joined other graduates – all with arts and design backgrounds – in a learnership for craft product development in partnership with rural artisans. The programme, put together by Create SA and the St Lucia Wetlands Park Craft Programme (now ISimangaliso), invited the graduates to go live and work in the communities.
‘Ultimately, our job was to develop and refine handmade products and connect the artisans with wholesalers and retailers who could market and sell their beautifully-made wares,’ she explains.
‘But, there was an ongoing problem. When funding for product development and market access programmes depleted, the support for artisans would cease. Suddenly the women, who are both socially and geographically removed from the market for their wares, were left with no orders for their products, and a loss of important income.’
Women in rural regions are some of the busiest women in the world. They do so much to support their families. From growing and selling vegetables, providing cooking services for local crèches, sewing and selling garments for traditional ceremonies, to rearing and selling chickens. But one of the most important methods of earning an income is making and selling crafts.
Nikki came to the conclusion that a social enterprise to support rural women artisans was much-needed. And who better to start this than herself? She had done loads of research and had years of experience on the ground at a grassroots level, working and living with rural women in their communities. And so Zulu Mien was born.
‘I hoped to create a sustainable social enterprise that could bridge the gap between the women artisans and the market for their craft, and offer ongoing support and consistent orders for products.
‘The Siyazisiza Trust, who offered product development and market access assistance to craft groups, suggested that I approach master beader Elsie Bahlezi Mahlangu of the Rhubhani craft group to develop a jewellery range. Together with this extremely talented group of women, we developed our first range of jewellery.
‘Khanya Mthethwa, an incredibly creative jeweller, helped to conceptualise our first range and work out how we could combine beadwork with the fine art of jewellery design in sterling silver. The beadwork is produced by hand, without the use of a loom, and each high-quality bead is individually sewn into a pattern by using ancient Nguni methods that have been passed down from mother to daughter. So our jewellery is quite simple, yet elegant … understated and not busy or complicated at all. It’s actually quite the opposite of traditional South African beadwork.’
Although Nikki does not make the jewellery herself, it is a major team effort. She will come up with a design idea and propose it to the craft group. They in turn guide her as to whether or not the idea is feasible or not, using the beading techniques.
‘In terms of patterns and designs, the women mostly come up with these. I do most of the work around testing and deciding colour combinations because I’m usually the one hearing from the customers what they would prefer. We decide on final specifications and measurements together as they again know best what will work for a particular design. It’s a wholly collaborative effort and essential that we put our minds together.’
Like many businesses, Covid hit them hard. Especially because most of their clients are tourists and the international market.
‘South Africans see a lot of beadwork and they’re accustomed to seeing it being sold cheaply at roadside markets. So they struggle to see the value in beautifully crafted beadwork pieces and to appreciate the time and skill it takes to create. International clients are instantly in awe of it, as it’s not common for them and they tend to place a higher perceived value on the pieces. We simply cannot wait to attend big international trade shows like Maison & Objet in Paris and New York Now … but our time will come.
‘For some reason, we’ve started to finally build some local recognition and that helped us to stay positive, and that what we’re trying to achieve is worthwhile.’
Zulu Mien won the Innibos National Craft Award for Best Corporate Gifts in 2020 and have been selected as part of the Design Indaba Emerging Creatives Class of 2021.
So, if there ever was a time to support local, now is that time.
The Zulu Mein range consists of gorgeous collections named after the artisans, chokers, body chains, bracelets, earrings and necklaces. Like their motto states, to wear a piece of Zulu Mien, is to wear a piece of Africa.
The meaning behind the name:
The Zulu are the most well-known of the Nguni tribes of South Africa. While our jewellery is comprised of all the styles and techniques used by the Nguni tribes, we have chosen to name ourselves after the Zulu … being a recognition word, it is recognised across the globe. Mien (pronounced meen) is how you present yourself and the impression you make. It’s best to keep a low profile but a dignified mien. A person’s mien is a look or quality that tells a lot about their personalities or temperaments. A person with a cheerful mien probably radiates happiness and energy, while someone with a serious mien may have an air of being lost in thought.
Some of Zulu Mien’s jewellery:
* Main image caption: Master beader Ma Bahlezi Elsie Mahlangu, Nomthandazo Jane Mahlangu – also known as Thandi who started beading when she was still at school, Nikki, Busisiwe Cecilia Masemola started crafting at the age of 15, and master beader Ma Mapholi Rosina Ntuli, the sister and right-hand woman to craft group founder Ma Bahlezi.