Preserving Tradition: Binky Newman's Design Afrika
Decor & Design

Preserving Tradition: Binky Newman's Design Afrika

Revitalizing the ancient craft of African basket weaving.

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When Binky Newman founded Design Afrika in 1995, her dream was to 'defend and protect the weaving traditions of the artisans whose skills are vulnerable'. 

Since then, Newman has travelled to some of the continent’s most remote countries in search of traditional weavers, grown relationships with these communities of artisans, and then worked with them to create contemporary pieces that are both saleable on a global, commercial scale and celebratory of their ancient origins. 'My responsibility is to preserve the skills and traditions of aeons of baskets weavers in Africa, but also to design and promote contemporary and modern designs that are demanded by the global market,' says Newman.

Along the way, South African Newman has discovered countless craftspeople whose intricate work dazzles and amazes. 'I’m inspired by the highly skilled weavers and am passionate about showing the world how a basket is made,' Newman smiles. 'The time it takes to weave just a small basket; the mathematics involved in creating patterns; the inherent knowledge of the plants that are used in basket weaving…' It’s why Design Afrika is built on nourishing ethical partnerships with the artisanal communities Newman identifies across the continent. 'We travel to remote places in Africa to identify traditional weavers, conduct design workshops and then take both the traditional and modern designs to international trade shows,' she explains. 'We do this whilst upholding and adhering to the principles of Fair Trade and ethical business practices.'

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For Newman, sustainable, ethical design is at the very core of Design Afrika. 'It means protecting the skills and traditions of each community of basket weavers,' she explains, passionately. 'It means using only raw materials that are neither vulnerable nor endangered. It means guaranteeing that the weavers are paid well, and that the designs we create have longevity. It also means ensuring that there’s no cross pollination of designs from one traditional community to another, and definitely no copying!'

Here, Newman speaks to four areas – each with their own distinct design type – that offer four success stories showcasing the power of authentic partnership.

Xhosa weavers, Cape Town

'With the assistance of the Cape Town City Council I established a weaving group in Dunoon, a township outside Cape Town,' explains Newman. 'The traditional Xhosa basket is the ingobozi and their plant material is imisi, a river reed. Cape Nature have given the weavers a permit to harvest imisi at the Rietvlei Nature Reserve.

'Traditionally these artisans only weave one shape, but now we’ve created a line of tables and stools which are woven by the Dunoon weavers. These have been very well received globally.'

Zulu weavers, KwaZulu-Natal

'Zulu traditional weavers are widely celebrated globally,' enthuses Newman. 'I’m working with master weavers in KwaZulu-Natal to produce a range of tables and stools which had huge interest at Maison & Objet, Paris in September.'

Djiboutian weavers, Djibouti (East Africa)

'I worked as a design consultant in Djibouti last year,' reflects Newman. 'These traditional weavers’ only outlets were small shops in their villages. With the assistance of a local NGO, these women are able to market their new designs at fairs organised by the diplomatic community.

'As an example, whilst doing a presentation at the end of the workshop, two members of the French Embassy were keen to support any initiative which promoted fine basketry. As a result, The French Institute held a sale of Djiboutian craft recently which was wonderfully successful.'

Burundian weavers, Burundi

'I have recently returned from working in a Burundian refugee camp on the border of Tanzania,' says Newman. 'It was uplifting to see the satisfaction of these women as they produced beautiful baskets which are able to hold their own on the international stage. Whilst I provided the design element, WomenCraft, a basket-producing project for Burundian refugees and now Tanzanians living in the area bordering Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, provide the marketing aspect. Today they provide work for 600 weavers and export their baskets all over the world.'

Find out more at designafrika.co.za.