Elephant, Tribal Textiles
I came upon a community of artists in Zambia a few years ago, and thought you would be inspired by their story.
We were on a self-made safari adventure in a remote area of Zambia, Africa, visiting South Luangwa National Park. It was incredibly isolated, I sometimes cannot believe what we went through to get there. I’ll tell you about that another time. Like the ferry we used to cross the Zambezi River, a river that in most countries would have a bridge and drivers would be across in less than a minute. Here some people waited in line two days to cross.
Tribal Textiles, Zambia, Africa
One morning before our game drive I complimented the lodge manager on the table linens. She told us about the shop down the road that made them, suggested we visit the shop, owned and operated by Zambians. So we carved aside an extra hour from our precious wildlife adventures to stop at this shop on our way to the Mfuwe airport. I’m so glad we did, for it was one of the brightest moments of the trip, and still brings a sweet smile to my heart.
Tribal Textiles art studio
When I stepped across the threshold of Tribal Textiles, it was an oasis of art and human happiness as I have never seen before or since. The visitor first walks through the artist work area where there are dozens of tables in an orderly section under a corrugated metal “roof,” sans walls. African tribal music festively sets the scene while Zambian artists sit quietly engaged in their individual hand-painting projects.
There were some adobe-like structures for the shop with floors and walls; but most of the space was a working open-air art studio. Everywhere you could see in this modest complex were colorful textiles displayed on racks or clotheslines, drying in the African breeze.
Each piece was different in size, shape, and color patterns, usually with African themes. Designs included safari animals and trees, bright colors as well as earth tones, geometric designs, florals and abstracts, spanning many different tribal motifs.
The shop was neat and clean and had electricity, displaying home textiles (table linens, bedspreads, wall hangings) as well as personal textiles (garments and accessories) in several different rooms. Everywhere there were happy faces offering friendly assistance, industrious workers, and serene artists.
African art has long been synonymous with tribal face masks relating to religion, in which the wearer becomes a medium for the spirit. There is a sense of mysterious voodoo, often dark or other-worldly, and largely male-dominated. Tribal Textiles art was the antithesis of this traditional art, and one that I thoroughly welcomed.
This company and its art is about new life and hope, different in every way from the old African traditions. Not just men but women too are celebrated artisans, the business is founded and still run by a woman (Gillie Lightfoot) devoted to supporting native professionals in her Zambian community. And unlike many establishments in Africa, it was clear that every dollar we spent was distributed to the artists and devotees of this well-functioning business, and not caught in the pockets of unknown officials.
Lastly, one of the deep troubles with buying art or souvenirs in Africa is the maiming or poaching of animals that still pervades in alarming quantities. Illegal poaching for art or medicinal purposes and destruction of wildlife is an ugly and abominable act. This, too, is an old tradition, and one that has grown in epidemic proportions to the point of endangering many of Africa’s most prized natives, the animals.
This art was made of cloth (not ivory, rare wood, or animal hide), and decorated with paint rather than animal parts or feathers. It was designed and created by Zambians under the trees of their village, and we were assured of a brighter future for all concerned. It is slightly over five years since I made that trip, and I am happy to say the business is still there and continues to flourish.
Zebras roam freely, while these Zambians are employed and feeding their families. It’s a shining success story and an inspiring group of people.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander