In the eye of the go-getter: Township artists create beauty from ugly waste
Langa in Cape Town is at the centre of a movement to transform plastic into arts and crafts
Until a few years ago, 49-year-old Ivy Nhlapho didn’t know she had a creative side.
But just four years after making her first attempt at crafting, the mother of three from Langa, in Cape Town, considers herself a fashion designer and an entrepreneur.
Her speciality is designing fashion accessories using waste products such as tin caps, plastic and fabric offcuts.
“I started experimenting with the materials that my daughter left at home, which she used for her beading and crocheting work,” said Nhlapo.
“I had just lost my job and I was bored, so I started to try out a few things using her stuff. The more I experimented with different designs, the more confidence I got. I could see that I was getting somewhere.”
Today Nhlapho has a permanent trading space at Langa’s arts and culture centre, Guga Sithebe, and sells her wares at Cape Town’s monthly Silo Market at the V&A Waterfront, which offers startups a platform to exhibit their innovative products to the public.
Nhlapho paid tribute to a nonprofit organisation in Langa, Our Workshop, for giving her the break she needed.
Founded three years ago by Cape Town artist and designer Heath Nash, Our Workshop is a free-to-use and self-sustaining space at Guga Sithebe, where artists and crafters learn the basics of upcycling waste products into objects of value. It also runs a shop aimed at tourists.
“I got my creative juices flowing after my experience here and witnessing others making different things using waste,” Nhlapho said.
“The workshop has demonstrated that there is a value in waste … that you can make beautiful things out of something that is considered not so beautiful.”
She said the Crafts and Design Institute invitation to sell her fashion accessories decorated with cooldrink caps at the Silo Market was “a big deal for me”.
“They were very impressed with my innovation and invited me to take part. It was something different from the rest of other crafts,” she said.
“It gives me an opportunity to display and sell my work to a much bigger audience. Even the space that we have here in Langa is a big deal for many of us, as getting a decent trading space is a challenge in this community.”
Chulumanco Feni, 25, was unemployed when he joined Our Workshop a year ago. For him, as well as letting him work with other young artists and share ideas, “it’s more of a gallery”.
Feni, who initially painted as a hobby, paints mainly about township life and the struggles facing black South Africans such as poverty and service delivery issues.
“As a young black artist it’s very difficult to crack it in the industry, particularly when you don’t have a university degree. We don’t get opportunities to display our artworks at galleries in town so this is the only space where my work gets exposure, even to international artists.”
Even though Nontuthuzelo Mhloma already had her own business before joining the workshop, but she never had a space of her own to sell her African crafts, such as woven mats, vases, necklaces and cultural decorations.
“I struggled to have my own space to sell from due to complex reasons, including political reasons in the community. But the workshop gives me space to sell my work and learn from others the skills that I didn’t necessarily have,” she said.
Not only do the artists share ideas among each other, but they also hold educational workshops with various schools and shared social impact experiences, mostly with international tourists.
Artists, who are also members, make a profit by selling their works, but give back 10% to the project to keep it sustainable.
The NGO was also receiving support from local businesses. One of the initiatives the members were currently busy with was making a 25m³ ceiling panel for a Woodstock lifestyle centre using 2,600 plastic leaves from washed milk bottles. Nash said while the main focus of the project was to create beauty out of waste materials, another aim of the project was to change people’s mindsets about townships, “that they are not all about crime, but townships are spaces with so much potential if we pay enough attention”.
Nash said the Langa pilot was used as a blueprint for other townships and to teach people to think differently about waste and see it as a resource instead of rubbish.
“Locals don’t seem to use these experiences, but I would love them to use these experiences as a way to learn about township life. What’s beautiful about coming together and share skills is that people end up making connections with others and learning about each other,” he said.