Posted Tuesday 5 February 2013
A partnership between Kingston University and a craft centre in Zimbabwe has proved so successful that a group of women from a remote farming community are about to exhibit their work at one of the world's largest design shows.
The head of Kingston's Design School, Simon Maidment, has been sharing his expertise with the Lupane Women's Centre, whose hand-woven baskets provide a much needed source of income for many families. Based in rural Matabeleland, two hours' drive from Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, the centre gives women an opportunity to earn money at times of the year when they cannot farm, enabling them to send their children to school or simply put food on their tables.
The products are sold to tourists visiting southern Africa and are even stocked by Anthropologie and Conran shops in Europe and the United States. Their work has already been shown at the London Design Festival and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and, in February, some of the craftswomen will be rubbing shoulders with creative talents from across the globe at Design Indaba in Cape Town - the city which has been named World Design Capital for 2014.
Mr Maidment said he found himself not so much lecturing but collaborating with the workers as they explored new ways of making, transporting and marketing the baskets. "We were keen to work with the women to help them realise how skilful they really were and to see the potential value of the items they produced," he said.
The success of the project has attracted continued funding from the British Council. "It has really given our women the confidence to try new things," the manager of the Lupane Women's Centre, Hildegard Mufukare, said. "The women want to live better lives and, with the help of Kingston University, now have the confidence to achieve that."
Design Indaba takes place in Cape Town at the end of February. Building Baskets has been jointly curated by Kingston University professor Catherine McDermott and Candice O'Brien, who has recently completed the university's MA in Curating Contemporary Design.
Students from both the business and design schools at Kingston University have also been involved in the initiative. "We challenged our up-and-coming graphic, product, furniture and fashion designers to solve various problems that limited profits for the basket weavers, ranging from logistics to product diversity," Mr Maidment said. Selected ideas were then presented to the women during two weeks of workshops in Zimbabwe.
Emma Lawlor, who recently completed a Kingston University degree in product and furniture design, was part of a team back in the United Kingdom that investigated how to transport the delicate woven baskets. "The larger baskets get damaged easily in transit, so we came up with a way of splitting them into two parts that could be woven back together later," Emma, who is from Bristol, explained. "We called the project Tops and Tails and came up with a solution involving paperclips and cable ties. We were so proud when it was adopted by the centre."
The workshops had also prompted the women to give names to their new products, Mr Maidment said. They included ‘Alice Bowls' and ‘Shylet Shopper'. "The women hadn't truly taken ownership of the work before in this way," he said. "We also introduced drawing and dyeing and combined their techniques with new approaches such as weaving around an object. They'd never drawn, for example, because they'd made the baskets from memory."
Professor McDermott believes that both the craftswomen and the students have benefited from the partnership. "Working with the centre has been a two-way flow of creativity," she said. "It's a way for us to begin to change perceptions in the United Kingdom about African economies. This is not a charity project - it's a mutual exchange of knowledge between two equal partners. High quality teaching transforms lives. We can't transform the economy of Zimbabwe, but we do feel that, step-by-step, our impact can help make a difference."