Nimble-fingers, meticulous attention to detail and delicate touch and care.
Yes, those might be some of the attributes needed when translating an artist’s paintwork into a spellbinding beadwork replica; however, the women behind Qaqambile Bead Studio will venture that one more virtue is what’s truly needed in droves — patience.
And it is certainly understandable why you will need it if you are to be spending 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 6-8 weeks painstakingly stringing, mixing, glueing, sewing and attaching tens of thousands of beads onto panels often metres high and wide.
Yet it’s a task Cape Town-based beaders Mandisa Masina (57), Nolubabalo Kanku (54) and Neliswa Sigwela (45) equally describe as a labour of love and a continuous healing journey, as with each collaboration with an artist they expertly add texture, detail and new dimensions to the pieces.
The women met after being recruited as part of a collaborative art project headed by Jeanetta Blignaut, (founder of the Jeanetta Blignaut Art Consulting) with the Spier Arts Trust in 2004.
Sigwela credits Blignaut along with mixed media artist Tamlin Blake for teaching them and the rest of their cohort of 13 other women how to ‘bead on board’ on that two-year project. In 2006, the ladies formed a group of four to begin their own business which was first called “Qalo”, meaning — beginning.
“Then one lady left us and now there are three of us and our name now is Qaqambile, which means ‘bright’, and we truly are bright and shining. Now we attend exhibitions, we also go overseas and have private clients too,” Sigwela explained, her face lighting up with pride.
Sigwela had started her training in beadwork at a three month course at the College of Cape Town’s Gugulethu campus (previously known as Sivuyile Technical College) in 2004, but at that time, was versed in only making necklaces and bangles.
She readily admits that when she first saw the technique and skill level it took to bead on board — her initially thought was that it would be too difficult for her to grasp.
“But as I worked on it, and learnt other techniques too as opposed to just making necklaces, I saw that you just need patience, care and diligence for the work at hand,” she continued.
Bead work started adding a new layer for her personally too — healing.
Sigwela added, “For some of us, it’s [beading] actually even therapy… sometimes you come to the studio with stress from home, and when you start working, you just focus on what you’re doing and forget even what you were stressing about.”
Qaqambile Bead Studio, which is housed at Union House at the heart of Cape Town’s City Bowl, has since collaborated with prominent local fine and visual artists, and boasts features in local and international exhibitions and art fairs.
In fact, Kanku – who lives in Nyanga township — described her trip to London in 2019 to attend an art fair in which their collaborative work was featured, as a career highlight.
“You can imagine, for me at my age, it was the first time I had gone abroad and it was one thing that made me feel like, ya,now I’m a business lady! I never thought I would go abroad and it made me feel big you know?”, Kanku laughed.
The trio teamed up with Thabisa Mjo of Mash.T Design Studio last year to create the ‘Bright Light’ pendant, a six-week labour of love partly done under hard national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Sigwela had to take the piece home with her in Nyanga to complete as movement to and from their studio was restricted.
Asked what each of their favourite parts of the process was when creating the beaded panels — it was a sure case of ‘different strokes, for different folks’.
“My favourite part is choosing colours to match the piece because it’s challenging and hard work. And when we’ve chosen the colours, and are pasting the beads on, I love doing the detailed parts of the piece — because those are the parts that make the panel beautiful and sing,” Sigwela offered.
Masina chimed in, “For me it’s definitely seeing the final product hanging there and I can’t even believe sometimes that I was involved in making something so beautiful!”
Kanku jokingly said that starting out a large panel was her least favourite part.
“But midway, I start enjoying it because you slowly start seeing what you’re doing and where it is going.”
Kanku added, “You have to love it [bead work,” and it be in your blood — it’s not about rushing to make money, it’s about satisfying your client because we change their paintings into beads. So we can’t miss any detail from the painting, it must be reflected in the beadwork.”