TEXT: ELLEN SIMONIA
BYHAND AFRICAN ARTISANS is an artisan based company producing interior design. It has been operating since 2010, founded by my husband and I, a Danish couple who has resettled in Africa since 2006.
The inspiration came from seeing the beautiful handicrafts and craftsmanships initially in Egypt. With a simplistic design approach based on our Scandinavian roots, we saw such a vast potential in the skills passed on from generation-to-generation.
We sought to create a look, which not only appealed to the minimalistic designs of Scandinavia and the Western world, but also could represent the core craftsmanship behind each product and all the hands the product goes through in the process.
As we settled in the oasis of Siwa, in the Western Desert of Egypt, our first producers came to be from that area. To make traditional embroideries on handmade textiles sourced from a village outside Cairo, we collected a group of women who were all skilled in the craft. Through trainings and countless hours of work/dialogue, the group became a independent entity, now working for not only ByHand, but also other Egyptian designers. The women themselves transformed from being for most part disillusioned widows and divorcées dependent on the men in their family to sustain them, to being independent women able to sustain themselves, their families and their livelihood as well as gaining the self confidence and respect to enable them to travel to source supplies by themselves.
Another group of artisans in Siwa is the salt carvers. It was discovered that from the thick layer of fossilized sea salt covering the underground of the oasis, shapes could be carved. From pure salt, candlesticks and salt cellars has been designed. Simple designs paying tribute to the elegant material itself.
Year by year the company has expanded to implement more artisan groups and a bigger portfolio of different materials. Today we work with about 10 groups in Egypt and three in Kenya. Each group work with their traditional handicraft, but with designs that, although they are traditional, are designed to fit the Scandinavian and Western market at large.
In our design approach we try to support the original designs from its particular area, we use only existing techniques, though sometimes refined to beyond recognition. We simply try to defend some of these valuable and time precious craftsmanships, before they are being swallowed by the globalization, by creating luxury interior objects.
It is our aim to expand our operations to more countries in the North and East African region. It is a slow and challenging process as each group has to be sought out and trained through a given period of time to able to produce for costumers abroad.
Today we work with handmade textile, basketry, handblown recycled glass, sustainable wood carving, metal work, clay, rug and kilim, stone, salt and embroidery.The products are distributed to shops around the world, from Copenhagen to New York and Sydney.This year we are launching our web shop. A direct outlet that enables some of the more unique products and designs that are not economically viable to be sold through agents to be seen.
ETHICAL trade and dealings with our artisans is one of the foundation rocks in the company. What we wanted to prove to ourselves and the world was that a commercial company with valued principles regarding ethics, moral and capacity building for the artisans could be sustainable. It has been a rough ride getting this far, but we have reached further than we had ever thought and the cash flow we help generate has an impact on many communities in the operating countries.