The Art of Changing Lives
The very early concept of Zizamele started simpy as a “learn to earn” program at a local community college for economically disadvantaged students. Lecturer—and soon to be founder of the ceramics company—Toni Burton spent 18 months teaching students to create employment opportunities in the craft sector. By the end of the course, students were told to go and start a business. Easier said than done because none of the 30 students owned a computer let alone a car. What they had was a skill that couldn’t be applied anywhere, putting them back in a life of poverty. Knowing the dire circumstances, Burton negotiated with the college where they selected the top seven individuals who had taken the course and were allowed to continue working in the pottery studio , attempting to make items for sale. This endeavor led to Zizamele which means to "do something for yourself.”
The potters create a wide range of pottery including their signature product: the Ubuntu bowl, an African version of the friendship bowl that shows female figures holding hands around the bowl’s rim in a spirit of unity, wearing traditional African with their babies on their backs. All the work is handmade, either on the pottery wheel by a young male potter or in press moulds. “The hand-modeled lady figures that have been made in clay are left to harden a little and these are later added to the bowls and the vases. Once they have been bisc fired all the decoration is done by hand. Our earlier work was decorated by using a stamping method that we developed ourselves. This involves "printing" with various stamps in overlapping colors. Some of the overlaps create a third color. We have started using more geometric patterning recently on the charcoal clay items as well as adding gold lustre for a little bling. While we use traditional techniques, we aim to make our work have a contemporary twist,” explained Burton.
Artisans without means of transportation are fortunate to live in the community of Masiphumulele, which is within walking distance of the campus where Zizamele’s studio is located. All the original artisans are still in the business bar one, Burton employed an additional four women and one man, plus two saleswomen for their shop. On the business end Burton admits to a handful of challenges. “The biggest challenge for me is handling the design, the management, the production and the HR on a day to day basis. Owning a small business requires one to be a multitasker who has knowledge of many things! While I come from a family of entrepreneurs, I have a degree in fine art and zero business training. Along the way I have picked up fairly good marketing skills but the financial side of things I leave to my accountants.”
Since its inception in 2008, Zizamele’s milestones have been impressive starting with their first export order ever to Anthropologie in the US. “It was a highlight for us as we had never made such a large quantity of products! 1200 items was a lot in those years (2008) and we really cut our teeth on that export order. Zizamele also made 1500 striped and dotted reindeer for Crate & Barrel for a Christmas catalogue. In addition, the company also created two public sculptures located in Cape Town. “One is a sculpture of six ceramic fish on a stainless steel "raft" that floats in a lake in the park and one is a cement bench with ceramic mosaic inlaid in it. The bench was created with a foundation called ROCKGIRL who placed sculptures around the city to empower and uplift the young women in our community. The Zizamele bench found its home at the Cape Town Station.”
Zizamele will be attending NY NOW’s Artisan Resource from August 12-15 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. Burton will bring their popular Ubuntu Bowls “We also have a new range called WOMEN OF AFRICA which are more sculptural bowls with a variety of African headdresses on the clay figures on the bowls. We aim to look at all the cultures of the women of africa and the products in this range are Sweetie or Soap Dishes, thress lady and six lady bowls. We also have a range of African animals, t-lights and eggcups that I am bringing. The Protect Us range consists of endangered animals such as the rhino, elephant, riverine rabbit and blue swallow.”
To learn more visit www.zizamele.com.