When Sam Tho Duong was 14 years of age his family left Vietnam and settled in Pforzheim, the jewellery capital of Germany, if not the world. Sam was intrigued by the Goldstadt (Gold City) and began to study jewellery at the Technical College for Design of Jewelry & Objects. He took up a goldsmith apprenticeship with Dr.Wellendorff and then completed a diploma of design at University of Design, Pforzheim. Since he started as a freelance designer in 2002, he has shown his work in dozens of exhibitions, including six solo shows throughout Europe. In 2009 he won the prestigious Herbert-Hofmann-Prize for contemporary jewellery.
For Welcome Signs, he has contributed his work In der Ruhe Liegt die Kraft (In Silence lies Power). These include three ‘garlands’ modelled on traditional floral neckwreaths but made of toilet paper. The garlands are constructed by cutting white and yellow toilet paper into strips and rolling each piece in his fingers. These ‘paper pearls’ are then threaded on a steel string for permanence.
For Sam, the work reflects on the importance of the rest room as a sanctuary in our day. As modern people we depend on the regular supply of a material of which we remain silent, toilet paper, which Sam describes as ‘clean, soft and reliable. It deserves more than been flushed down the toilet.’
The contemporary jewellery movement has been largely defined as a challenge to traditional notions of preciousness. They sought to give value to jewellery not in the materials but through the ideas. Plastic could be just as beautiful as gold, if designed with skill and imagination. This modernist challenge continues in Sam’s work, though he adds a critical edge in using a material that we normally keep out of sight.
So can we imagine a work like Sam’s ever being used as a welcome garland? Usually these garlands are made of material in public use, like flowers, money or confectionary. Can they be made from a material associated with private space? Or does their intrinsic beauty transcend all negative associations?
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)
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.
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.