The humble journey of the Marigold collective of Zimbabwean beaders is now documented in a beautiful book.
From afar, the broad bead necklaces made by the Marigold collective of women in Bulawayo look like solid strips of fabric or leather. But get up close, and the intricacy of these beautiful loomed beads is simply mesmerising.
Arranged together in a multitude of necklaces, it is little wonder their now huge body of artwork has captured imaginations far and wide, with the much anticipated book Making Marigold – Beaders of Bulawayo launching recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, followed by a launch in January at Strauss & Co. in Houghton Estate, to a full house of Joburg’s arts and culture luminaries, including Marianne Fassler.
Marigold is a women’s co-operative, dating back to 1992, which entered into a mutually energising and enriching relationship with Bulawayo-born, Johannesburg-based artist and the writer of this book, Joni Brenner. The title of the book refers also to the creative process that underlies the making of the Marigolds, the loomed necklaces that emerge from this relationship. Looking at the photographs, it is impossible to miss the unrestrained glamour of these necklaces, and the skill applied in producing them. More significantly, it leads you to reflect on the sustained artistry of the makers of these beadworks, and the committed skill they have brought to their products despite difficult circumstances that face most of them.
Back when it started, Making Marigold consisted of 20 women who’d been trained in workshops arranged by the Bulawayo City Council.
Later, with funding from the Danish aid organisation Mellemfolkelight Samvirke, the group began producing items such as headbands, chokers, purses and belts for the local and overseas markets. However, Marigold’s fortunes, mirroring Zimbabwe’s waning economy, also declined as resources and clients gradually ceased to be steadily available.
In 2011, a sample strip of loomed beadwork, eight small seed-beads across and over a metre in length, was commissioned by Peta Brenner, Joni’s mother, with the idea of incorporating it into some of her own handwork. On seeing this beautiful sample, Joni draped it around her neck and asked if it could possibly be joined to make a necklace. In that moment, the design for what would become the new Marigold direction
The format established that night has become the signature Marigold necklace, a pure continuous loop of loomed beadwork, with more than 65 shifts to the design having evolved to date. The flawless quality of the work is thanks to years and years of practice, and of course the creativity of the makers who are guided by the materials at hand. Brenner calls the process ‘noticing and following’, where one thing seems to lead effortlessly to another.
Still, the shift into multiple colour combinations demands an artistic and aesthetic set of sensibilities, and daily decisions that make the work anything but predetermined. Brenner developed shifts in the designs and sent good beads in an unending array of colours. Marigold, in turn, contributed to the combinations of design and colour, and the continued refinement of
“We have all kept going, strangely focused but without a specific plan in mind. The work unfolds in a deeply improvised way, one design giving rise to the next, and one combination of colours prompting variations,” says Brenner. Comments Siphiwe Dube, one of the beaders: “The beads are alive; they tell you which ones can be combined.”
By now, Marigold beads have attracted a wide, distinguished following. They were noticed by Kim Sacks some years back, when Brenner walked into her African Art and Design Gallery wearing a good few strands of royal blue and periwinkle two-toned blues. They were noticed by Marianne Fassler, who saw fit to feature them as the only accessory in her Winter Collection for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week 2013. They were also noticed and included by Lucy MacGarry, curator of the 2016 FNB Joburg Art Fair, and by Kevin Shenton, who saw the visual possibilities for a book.
Most recently, they were noticed by Alisa LaGamma at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who arranged for this book and the work of the project to be launched at the museum. “The book itself has a life of its own; the response has been amazing,” smiled Shenton at the launch in Joburg.