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African art that’s Made in China

Gretchen Wilson Feb 27, 2009

African art that’s Made in China

Gretchen Wilson Feb 27, 2009


Bill Radke: If you’ve done some travelling abroad, you may have bought some ethnic arts and crafts for your home. A mask from Mexico, a wood carving from Kenya. But are you sure they’re authentic? Globalization means more and more African arts and crafts are being made in factories not in the countries they claim to be from. Gretchen Wilson reports from Johannesburg that real crafters are struggling to compete.

Gretchen Wilson: This sidewalk serves as a studio for South African artist Boas Manzvenga. He strings wires with tiny beads to make the distinctive sculptures this region’s known for.

Boas Manzvenga: This one is a small, small leopard. And this one is a lion.

He’s asking $35 for this lion, about the size of a house cat. It’s these skills that put bread on the table for his wife and sons. And his extended family.

Manzvenga: I think it’s nearly 20 people. They depend on me. So I need to support them.

Many of the 1 million traditional craft artists in South Africa might otherwise be unemployed. But they pump more than $300 million a year into the economy. It’s tough for them to compete with Chinese manufacturers who flood the market with cheaper replicas.

Manzvenga: They can buy things at cheaper price. Then they can go there and remake it and they make a profit out of us.

And they do, at shopping malls like this one, in Johannesburg, where shelves are loaded with foreign-made baskets, beaded jewelry and wooden giraffes. All mass produced.

Priscilla Nyoni is with Craft Yarona, a company that promotes local artists:

Priscilla Nyoni: It’s something that has been happening for years now, and our government hasn’t been intervening.

She says there’s more at stake than just employment:

Nyoni: That’s African identity, and they’re actually stealing it.

Artists sometimes turn to copyrights and intellectual property laws to protect their work. But that’s expensive. So African artists are easily exploited — especially the rural poor.

Anitra Nettleton is an art historian at Wits University:

Anitra Nettleton: They don’t have access to the kinds of legal ways of protecting their designs, and so anyone can use them. Because there is nothing to stop. And that’s immoral.

South Africa’s artists are trying to innovate to keep one step ahead of look-a-like imports. And they say it’s now up to consumers to make sure they’re buying the real thing.

In Johannesburg, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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