Monkeybiz: the art of poverty alleviation

by Marisah Smith

All photos courtesy Monkeybiz

A herd of multi-coloured, lovingly crafted beaded elephants seen grazing at Design Indaba 2013, symbolised the ability of design to truly transform lives. The product of proudly South African non-profit organisation Monkeybiz, these and other beaded creatures provide their makers with a brighter future.

Monkeybiz was started by ceramic artists Barbara Jackson, Shirley Fintz and Mathapelo Ngaka in 2000, in an effort to create jobs and resuscitate the dying art of traditional beading. They started out with one woman artist, growing to the 450 women – often the sole breadwinners in their homes – who work for Monkeybiz today.

Monkeybiz provides them with beads, thread, cotton and skills training, and purchases the artworks as soon as they are completed. Each woman signs the beaded pieces with their name, instilling a sense of pride and allowing would-be buyers to follow the designs of artists that they favour.

The designs were limited to traditional dolls at first and when asked in an interview what her vision for the business is, founder Barbara Jackson responded by saying that she wanted to be “Bigger than Barbie”. This is the name of a documentary about her and the inspiring story of how Monkeybiz came to be the premium, niche beaders in Africa. Some of their art pieces are displayed in the Museum of Art & Design in New York and the Jewish Museum, New York, and the small permanent team are insistent that their bead art earns a place on the shelves of homes, galleries and museums worldwide. 

                                                                                            Monkeybiz operates out of donated office space at 43 Rose Street in the Bo-Kaap, as one of the social responsibility programmes of the iconic Carrol Boyes Functional Art company. A design destination in its own right, the shared premises is open to the public and recounts the Carrol Boyes success story that started with the design of a teaspoon 22 years ago.

To arrange a scheduled tour of the Monkeybiz and Carrol Boyes premises for you or your tour groups, or to enquire about retailing their range, please contact Joan Krupp, Customer Relations Manager, telephonically on +27 21 426 0145 or via e-mail at monkeybiz@monkeybiz.co.za.

• Read more about the Design Indaba 2013

• Watch the story of Monkeybiz on YouTube

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