In the Fall of 2010, I moved to Tanzania, Africa, for a month, to volunteer. It was quite a change from the icy tundra of New England in late Fall, and I was glad to go! As an artist, I was particularly interested in the town of Bagamoyo (literally, “lay down your heart”, due to its role in the slave-trade) on the Eastern coast, which has been an artists’ community for generations. I hoped to absorb as much of the unique design, technique, and craft inherent to the local artists as I could, and possibly acquire some new, locally-made materials.
We would meet in a local artist, Chidi’s, arts/crafts stall, set up on the side of a dirt road. It was filled with his paintings, and jewelry, instruments, and housewares made by members of the Maasai tribe. He was selling the items to the occasional tourist who passed by, but considering how infrequently that happened, he was willing to loan the stall to us for our morning sessions.
Some time later, I found beautiful pairs of traditional Maasai beaded earrings, using the same technique as the coasters, at a stall in the Mwenge Craft Market, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s capitol. They were intricate, and beautiful, and very, very large. The style was unlike anything I owned, and I knew it’d be a bit of a challenge to find opportunities to wear them back home in Boston, but I purchased them anyway, from a Maasai vendor at the Market.
But I was hooked. The design was so beautiful and unusual, I imagined other women might want to wear it too. And I wanted to perfect my technique, to get the wirework as neat and even as the Maasai artist had done. I modified the technique a bit, and kept creating new pieces until I thought I’d really gotten the hang of it.
After I lost yet another earring from a second original Maasai-made pair, I realized it was the flimsy earwires that were the culprits, and knew modifications were needed for sale to a Western audience. While the traditional earrings were beautiful, they were created in an environment with limited resources and a different esthetic, and I wanted to utilize better quality materials like semi-precious stones, sterling silver, and rocaille glass beads. I wanted to add a bit sparkle, for the more glamorously-inclined woman. I began offering my pieces on Etsy, at my shop, Hieropice, and the rest was history! I’ve been creating new and interesting versions ever since, blending different colors and altering the shape.
The major hurtle the artisans in Bagamoyo faced was relying upon tourism to sell their work, as the locals, who have an average yearly salary of $357, cannot afford to buy it. The minimal tourist traffic there barely supports them, and they desperately need an outlet. They deserve it, the artists are incredibly talented, dedicated, and practiced. I hope to, one day, return to collaborate with Maasai bead artists back in Tanzania, presenting them the new beading technique I’ve developed and new materials, and relying on their existing beading skills to create the pieces Hieropice will sell. In this way, the artists can access a new, solid market for their work, and infuse some much-needed income into their community. With your support, we’ll make that happen! Thank you for it.
With lurve, Dara