Issa Dialo of Senegal shows off his collection of masks at the African Crafts Market in Rosebank. Picture: Veli Nhlapo/Sowetan
Issa Dialo of Senegal shows off his collection of masks at the African Crafts Market in Rosebank. Picture: Veli Nhlapo/Sowetan

It may often be viewed by locals as kitsch, but the African crafts and curios trade is a significant contributor to the economies of many countries — and combines unusual trading practices with a concern for the loss of cultural patrimony.

The department of arts & culture’s 2012-2013 figures show the crafts industry contributed R11bn to GDP and employed about 38,000 people, significantly changed from 2002 when Brand SA’s figures were R3.4bn to GDP and 1.2m people, compared with R2.63bn and 44,000 jobs at the time in fishing.

On the few occasions it does make a showing in studies, the trade is seldom treated by economic analysts as a distinct entity. For example, in SA the biggest source of locally produced crafts and curios is the densely populated area of Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga. But whereas a 2005 research report estimated that 4,000 people lived off wood-carving there, with the kiaat wood industry then contributing US$1.4m/year (R9.52m/year at June 1 2005) to Mpumalanga’s economy, it did not distinguish between furniture carving and curio carving.

But anecdotal evidence gleaned from traders suggests the trade has shrunk since the 2008 financial crisis led to a loss in tourism and disposable incomes. The market profiles differ from country to country, however. In SA, the market is dominated by utensils, mostly for domestic consumption. In Zimbabwe it is mainly carved figures, overwhelmingly destined for the homes of tourists, with a small percentage earmarked for direct export. In Uganda, the trade is primarily in drums and other musical instruments, almost all destined for export.

West and Central Africa are famed for their carved masks. One trader in such masks is Allan Belingo, who is from Cameroon but has been trading in SA since 1999. His stall at the African Craft Market at Rosebank Mall in Johannesburg — where a life-sized springstone sculpture from Zimbabwe can set you back R30,000 — is piled to the ceiling with masks from Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere.

What it means

In 2012-2013 the SA crafts industry contributed R11bn to GDP and employed about 38,000

His business partner, Abdul Njinmountawo, makes two buying trips a year. His method of trade is highly unusual, involving neither cash nor credit. "If Abdul wants to buy a mask, the locals might say there is a small bridge across a river that needs repair. If he helps them fix it, he can have the mask," Belingo says. "If we were to buy the mask it would cost more than the R7,500 we sell it for here."

He points to some weathered, well-worn antique masks on his top shelf from the likes of the Chokwe tribe of Angola: "The older items are becoming difficult to find," he says, partly because of their spiritual value as hand-me-down items used in rites of passage such as initiations and marriages, though Belingo says traders are also worried this indicates a loss of Africa’s cultural heritage abroad.

As a result of strong demand, sculptors have been producing new masks that have not been worn socially, which are sold at only R600-R800 apiece. And Chinese artists have been making replicas, mostly from resin or some other replacement for wood. Film maker Byron Kennedy says that in haggling for props, he was shown a warehouse in Cape Town full of Chinese-made "African" crafts. Belingo says it is easy to spot a fake but Kennedy isn’t so sure.

Zimbabwean Simon Riutsito has been selling his art on the streets of Melville since 1992. He has carved out a niche for himself with unique animal sculptures made of scrap metal with a mixture of chipped paint, rust and distressed patinas which have attracted the eyes of local gallery owners. Studio Gesso sells his sculptures on 30% commission, while Mr Strong buys an elephant sculpture for R450 and resells it for R900.

Fellow Zimbabwean Lloyd Tandi entered SA 12 years ago. He occupies a Rosebank street corner selling colourful wire-and-beadwork giraffe, which cost R80 to produce, sold to passersby at R300 a pop — but he has a business partner in Santa Fe, New Mexico, US, who owns several galleries and who sells his giraffe there for up to $50 (R634) each. Profits may have shrunk over the past decade but the business still keeps this street trader winter-warm in a Daniel Hechter jacket