FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
What started as a passion for art has become a project that might help save lives. Ceramic Artist Barbara Jackson helped found Monkeybiz, a Cape Town, South Africa company that makes and sells intricate, glass-beaded dolls to support HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment projects. Four hundred fifty South African women have formed an artist collective, where they do the beadwork in a style that's been passed on for generations. Their dolls are now sold around the world. The money supports families, funds a wellness clinic, and helps with funeral costs. Barbara Jackson and Mathapelo Ngaka, thanks for talking to us.
Ms. MATHAPELO NGAKA (Co-Founder, Monkeybiz): Thank you.
Ms. BARBARA JACKSON (Co-Founder, Monkeybiz): Hi.
CHIDEYA: Hi, Barbara. So you co-founded Monkeybiz with a fellow artist. What inspired you to start the business, and why the focus on this sort of art?
Ms. JACKSON: First of all, I'm a ceramic artist, and I'm passionate about African culture and craft. And there was a lot of unemployment and poverty in Cape Town. And the sort of craft that was sold in the stores locally were mass-produced and reflected colonialism. And we wanted to solve, you know, the struggle of the people by creating a unique piece of work that could be bought by people of all income groups and something that had universal appeal.
CHIDEYA: So, Mathapelo, how did you find out about Monkeybiz and get involved in making products for them?
Ms. NGAKA: I found out because I was in ceramics. Then I met Barbara Jackson. So she loved my work. While I'm at the studio and her studio, my mom was making a beaded bracelet. And she show me to sell it to Barbara. Barbara, she said, this is beautiful, but it's all over, when you see, in Cape Town. So she give me a tiny doll. I take the doll home, I give it to my mom. We make the first doll. Today, this is where Monkeybiz start, from that doll. Today, we making animals, beaded pictures, angels, everything.
CHIDEYA: So tell us a little bit about your cultural history. Is this something that you've been doing throughout your family for centuries?
Ms. NGAKA: All the people in the Monkeybiz, they learn the beadwork from their grandmothers when they were growing up, like especially like my mom. She says she used to learn from her grandmother when she just do the beadwork. She learned it. But the younger generation, we didn't know any beadwork until the Monkeybiz start in 2000. Like myself, I learned the beadwork in 2000 from my mom. And in the bead working, we are like (speaks foreign language). We just all the cultural that we do in the beadwork.
CHIDEYA: So, in a way, your working for Monkeybiz brought back some old traditions that you had started to forget. It sounds like your mother knew, but she never passed on the beadwork to you?
Ms. NGAKA: Yes, because on the--long time ago, there's a time that have--like in apartheid time. We didn't have that opportunity to bring the beads back.
CHIDEYA: How would you like to see the work that you're doing expand in a way, so that more people could get help, both in terms of financially, and in terms of HIV awareness?
Ms. NGAKA: I can be very happy if the people they can spread the (unintelligible) about us, so the people they can just see in our Africa that the people are so poor, so they can help them. And also, because the people--that they make our product so unique, so I know people, they will love our stuff, so they will help.
CHIDEYA: Barbara Jackson, these dolls are truly magnificent. They have detailed clothing and hair and are very beautiful and artistic, and you've also done some special dolls that deal directly with the issue of HIV and AIDS. Tell us about your efforts beyond just marketing the dolls. You've got a book out, you've got a collaboration by Norwegian artists. Why have you expanded the work that you're doing?
Ms. JACKSON: We thought, well, you know, that we're passionate about what we're doing, and let's, you know, take it a step further and improve people's lives. And there is a big AIDS pandemic in South Africa, and there are a lot of people who need help, so we have an AIDS clinic. We help people with nutrition. The women do arts, they do drama. They do yoga. They consult with a doctor. So it's not only dealing with the AIDS problem, but it's dealing with getting the people fed, and opening soup kitchens and vegetable gardens and we see the results. It's very fulfilling work, and we want to be bigger than Barbie.
CHIDEYA: You mentioned that you see the results. Give me an example of someone that you have worked with who has been one of your craftswomen, and how working with your program has changed her life.
Ms. JACKSON: Well, to start off with, most of the people in the area, the one area of the township that we work with, most of the people lived in tin shacks. The whole families were starving, because in South Africa, for every one person who has employment, they're supporting a family of about 10. Now the women, a lot of the women have brick houses. They go and have their hair styled. They're able to feed their families and clothe their kids and send their kids to school. And we know by dealing with the women, you know, the money's going directly to help with the family.
CHIDEYA: How important do you feel that the work you're doing is?
Ms. JACKSON: Well, I think there's a lot of hidden talent in South Africa. We've got a lot of people who haven't had, you know, equal opportunities. They haven't had the education. But hopefully, because we've become quite successful, and other people would be inspired by what we're doing. I also believe that to help South Africa, small businesses is what is the answer. And people are still able to produce something that's of high quality and integrity.
CHIDEYA: Barbara Jackson and Mathapelo Ngaka of the South African beaded craft company, Monkeybiz. You can check out pictures of their beadwork and find a link to Monkeybiz at NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.