British Council Connect ZA programme’s South African participants Heath Nash and Unathi Kondile
In February 2013, the British Council’s Arts department team invited a group of curators and designers to visit Cape Town and Johannesburg, in preparation for Connect ZA, a cultural season dedicated to connecting young creatives in South Africa and the UK. Tom Porter and Sarah Mann guided the travelling party through the urban cultural hubs to get a feel for the local scene. The team included curator Catriona Duffy of Panel; designer Mil Stricevic; architects Stuart Falconer of GRAS and James Binning of Assemble and Daniel Charny, director at From Now On. The latter was commissioned to lead on the design and making aspect of the programme.
Inspired by the energy and entrepreneurship of the emerging creatives met by the team, including Nkuli Mangeli, Thingking, Alphabet Zoo and Heath Nash, Charny pitched an idea for a programme that would both support and enhance local activity, while connecting with the UK design scene.
Mentoring, peer-learning and strong studio culture would form the basis of the project. This conceptual idea then became a creative concept called the Maker Library Network (MLN), which was officially launched on 1 March 2014 by Daniel Charny, the Network’s Creative Director, and leading British architect, Thomas Heatherwick.
Founding Maker Libraries were based in Cape Town, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, with the Network currently expanding globally. Through Charny’s connections made in 2013, Thingking and Heath Nash were the first South African Maker Librarians, with Thingking’s Maker Library kicking off at Design Indaba 2014 and Nash’s opening at the GUILD exhibition in 2014. Designer Heath Nash wowed the South African creative industry with the 2005 Design Indaba debut of his ‘leafballs’, created out of recycled plastic.
In June 2006, Nash was recognised by the British Council with a Young Creative Entrepreneur Award and a subsequent tour to the UK (with fellow winners from around the globe) to witness what similar creators were doing. Around this time, Nash was also looking at ways to manufacture the ‘leafballs’ and other designed objects that were now in high demand and, through trial and error, has now hired a skilled team who handle the manufacturing in order for Nash to focus on more creative endeavours.
Nash’s Maker Library at GUILD (a partnership between V&A Museum and British Council Connect ZA) in 2014 featured a varied programme of events, from skill demonstrations to guest maker talks, bringing making into the design fair. The Library, which featured guest librarian Tetsuo Makai from Study’O Portable, included a display of work by contemporary British designers in the Maker Library’s gallery, curated by Jana Scholze from the V&A with Daniel Charny as curatorial adviser.
‘We did a lot of things,’ says Nash. ‘We did porcelain, there was a wood carver, we made picture frames, bookbinding, electroplating, shoe lacing and shoe making… After GUILD my next Library moved to a place called The Bank and then later I moved to the building next door, which is 75 Harrington Street [in Cape Town]’ where the Maker Library is currently housed. ‘My main area of interest is hand-making, simple craft techniques and simple materials… lately I’ve been playing with prickly pear, crushing it up and mixing with paper pulp.’
Nash’s Maker Library is split into two streams: a public stream whereby people can walk in and participate (it is also open on the City’s First Thursdays) and more private streams where professionals and amateurs are invited to co-create. Maker Libraries are workspaces defined by three key elements: a library, a makespace and a gallery. Each Maker Library is led by a librarian who is interested in fostering creative, social thinking and learning through making by running a dynamic programme of activities and workshops. As an active member of the MLN community, the librarian has an opportunity to contribute, connect and learn with like-minded people.
Librarians in each country will be able to share and adapt the MLN principles for their local conditions and locations; whether in their studio, in the corner of a café, or in a purpose built travelling vehicle. Maker Libraries exist as an addition to already existing businesses and support the practices and exploration of that space. When a Maker Library is set up, the librarian receives a starter kit which includes a blueprint and materials budget to build a library, a core set of books, a growing resource of open designs and access to a panel of mentors via an online platform. Aside from the Maker Library, Nash is currently working on personal projects such as conceptualising a sculpture for the V&A Waterfront and has recently finished a public commission called My Citi Bus Station.
Nash’s enthusiastic involvement with one of the original Maker Libraries has been a contributing factor in the uptake of the Maker Library Network worldwide. Fellow Young Creative Entrepreneur (awarded in 2014), Unathi Kondile started making a name for himself in the publishing world in 2010 when he and partner Madambi Rambuda formed Science Stars. The magazine (which is no longer owned by Kondile) is a science publication distributed in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. Following this success, Kondile ventured into the realm of newspaper publishing. In 2012, while researching for a PhD proposal to transform the media, Kondile came across a number of Xhosa newspapers.
The one that caught his attention was Isigidimi SamaXhosa, which was published from 1870 to 1888. The fact that this newspaper spoke plainly to the readers about their issues captured his attention. Later that year he revived Isigidimi SamaXhosa, writing about the issues faced by the Xhosa community on a daily basis, in the language they understand best – their mother tongue – isiXhosa. ‘I liked what they were doing by not just telling news but also to change the living conditions of Xhosa-speaking people back then. I took the title from them… so it’s an ongoing project from almost 100 years ago.’
The print run grew from an initial 5 000 copies to printing 20 000 a month. Kondile set up a business model that could promote growth of the Xhosa community in which it was situated. The newspaper was sold on a monthly basis for a nominal amount to individual distributors, known in their communities, allowing the sellers to keep 100% of the profits. It was this entrepreneurial spirit that was recognised by the British Council through the award and saw Kondile travel to the UK with a group of creative entrepreneurs from all over the world.
‘It feels like just yesterday. I saw other people working at other creative projects across the country, so when I won it, it was very unexpected, but it also opened a lot of doors for us. It was the first time I travelled overseas, we went to London and met other YCEs from other parts of the world. I think two of them were working on language and culture related things. We got to chat and see what they were doing and it was a networking opportunity more than anything else in those places. In London itself we got to see people doing what we were doing on a bigger scale. So we got to meet all these artists and creatives working around things that were still small in South Africa. We were able to see how they were doing it and it meant that there were more opportunities and a lot of things we have yet to do in South Africa.’
In March 2015, Kondile incorporated the paper into the Independent’s core of newspapers, renaming it to I’solezwe lesiXhosa similar to the Independent’s Isolezwe Zulu newspapers in KwaZulu-Natal. Under Kondile’s continued editorship, I’solezwe lesiXhosa has gone from strength to strength, becoming the country’s first daily Xhosa newspaper. Kondile is looking to expand it even further, with research currently being done into the markets within the Western Cape and Gauteng. Kondile attributes this next step in his career to the guidance received from the mentors he was partnered with through the YCE Award.
‘We got mentors who would talk to us on a weekly basis after we won,’ he says. ‘I think that’s why I was able to let go of my company and focus on the actual newspaper and give it to a bigger company. If I wanted to grow the newspaper, the only way was to let it go. They told me that in other parts of London, that’s how it goes. It did assist in a number of positions that I ended up taking and it was a drastic change. It did also dent my ego, confronting these challenges. It was a great experience, the changes that happened were direct results of that programme.’
Through work done before, during and now after the SA-UK Seasons 2014-2015, the British Council’s Connect ZA programme has been paramount in facilitating opportunities for South African creatives and recognising the exceptional talent that exists in our country.