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Rwandan grass meets German silver

Jewellery of natural fibers from Butare, Rwanda, designed and made in cooperation with Martina Dempf, Germany (photograph by Sebastian Ahlers)

The range of jewellery made by Martina Dempf in collaboration with basket weavers from Rwanda shows an intriguing combination of cultures. The vibrant designs and fine weaving of African grass is housed within elegantly crafted European silver. How did this collaboration come about?

Martina Dempf is a jeweller based in Berlin. She studied jewellery at Pforzheim under Rheinhold Reiling. While still a student, she took half a year to work as a volunteer in a project by Swiss Aid based in Lesotho (Southern Africa) with a jewellery company called the Royal Crown Jewellers.

At the end of her course, Martina travelled with her husband through the whole African continent  (Egypt to South Africa), where she decided to study anthropology. She completed a MA thesis in the Free University of Berlin (‘People Adorned. The Material Culture of the Toposa in Southern Sudan and the Turkana in Northern Kenya’). During the 1980s, she conducted field trips in Sudan, Kenya, Eritrea, Dschibuti and Yemen. Her recent field trips have included Turkana, Kenya (2006) and Toposa, Southern Sudan (2008)

Intashya style basket made by the cooperative of Nyamagabe (COPAF) incorporating natural body black pattern; Component: inside bamboo decoration swamp grass

Martina Dempf, Necklace “In the eye of the snake” 2002, 925 silver, snake bones, length 60 cm,

During one of these trips in 1986, she visited Rwanda, where she saw the fine grass-woven small baskets and thought they could be used to make jewellery. Traditionally, small baskets were made for the royal court. In 2007, she approached GTZ (German Technical Co-operation) and was invited to work with a group of 40 women in Butare who were organized in a crafts association (Rwanda Art). Martina found a thesis on traditional Rwandan crafts and together with the women, they created a collection of grass jewellery. The women created the grass centre while Martina makes the silver casing. Martina is also working with artisans in Laos and Cambodia.

Necklace with 4 pearls round and 3 disks in swamp grass made by women in Butare

The Rwandan craftswomen continue to produce jewellery designs that emerged from their collaboration with Martina, and Martina also continues to source Rwandan components for her jewellery.

The swamp (papyrus) grass jewellery is made by Dafan Mukantabashwa, Virginie Uwizeyimana, Pelagie Nyirahabineza, Alphonsine Urayeneza and Valentine Nyirakimonyo. The sisal jewellery is made by Anizerata Nyitanteziyaremye, Suzanne Uwitije, Daphrose and Libératha.

As with any collaboration between artisans from rich and poor countries, we are left with many questions. What does jewellery mean to Rwandans? Is it something purely for export? Were there new skills required in adapting basket-weaving to jewellery making? Can the aesthetic worth of Martina’s jewellery be distinguished from its ethical value? Does its ethical value make us predisposed to enjoy her work more or are we wary that our appreciation is predetermined by our politics?

Thanks to jewellers like Martina for opening up these issues, as well as making objects for us to enjoy. And thanks to Rwandan craftswomen for sharing their culture in a medium for us that we consider precious.

You can see the jewellery produced by Martina and the Rwandan woman at the World of Small Things, in Craft Victoria 18 June – 25 July.

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3 thoughts on “Rwandan grass meets German silver”

  1. I love to see more of your products from Rwanda. I’m shopping for my shop in Canada. Interested to buy wholesale. Thank you.

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