THE BEADED ME­NAGERIE & THE MAN BE­HIND IT

ON MY WAY TO THE LO­CAL SHOPS IN GREENSIDE, JO­HAN­NES­BURG, I AL­WAYS STOPPED TO PAT THE LION. HE WAS A MAG­NIF­I­CENT BEAST, ABOUT TWO YEARS OLD AND A ME­TRE TALL WITH A GOR­GEOUS GOLDEN MANE.

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One day he was gone, and his owner, Owen Chisvo, gave an apolo­getic smile.“I sold him to a game lodge in Mpumalanga,” he said.The lion was the most amaz­ing piece of bead­work I’d ever seen, made from tens of thou­sands of tiny orbs with a flow­ing mane cre­ated from dozens of short skeins looped around each other.

Chisvo (25) had wanted R4,000 for it, but set­tled for R2,000 – a pit­tance given the cost of the com­po­nents and the weeks of labour it took to make it. It was dam­aged, he shrugs, and slightly skewed, be­cause some­body had sat on it when he wasn’t look­ing.

THE BEAD BRIGADE

Chisvo is one of the nu­mer­ous bead­ing ex­perts that brighten up our pave­ments at shop­ping cen­tres and busy cross­roads. If you stop for a closer look, you’ll re­alise that the in­tri­cacy of their work is in­cred­i­ble.

Chisvo’s patch at Greenside’s Vil­lage Green shop­ping cen­tre in Jo­han­nes­burg is a me­nagerie of striped gi­raffes, wide­mouthed hip­pos, fat ze­bra, crested hoopoes nod­ding in the breeze, and a large, bright gecko climb­ing a tree in the cen­tre of it all.

He points to a fig­ure he calls the “ugly dog” and tells me it’s four years old, but look­ing brand new de­spite the bad weather. “This stuff and the rain are friendly,” he smiles.

He’s such a gen­tle­man that he of­fers me his bat­tered old chair while we chat. I sit, and al­most tum­ble onto the pave­ment. “Oh yes,” he says sheep­ishly, “I know the tac­tics for sit­ting on it now when it tries to throw me off!”

Chisvo comes from Harare, Zim­babwe and moved to South Africa in 2008. “I was sell­ing in Vic­to­ria Falls but I’d get two

I have reg­u­lar cus­tomers and some peo­ple place or­ders. I like to make the things that peo­ple are look­ing for. If they want ducks, I’ll make ducks. If I see they like gi­raffes, I’ll make gi­raffes.

cus­tomers a week.Tourists have been run­ning away from there, so I fol­lowed them here,” he says.

A THREE-PART PROCESS

His older brother had stud­ied bead­ing for two years at art school, and had passed on the skills to Chisvo. It’s a three­part process. First, he uses thick wire and fine-nosed pli­ers to mould the skele­ton of what­ever he’s cre­at­ing. He twists the metal as he talks, and if I use my imag­i­na­tion, I can see the ear of a chee­tah emerg­ing.

“In the be­gin­ning I was work­ing from pic­tures, but now I know the struc­tures of the an­i­mals, so when I’m plan­ning to make some­thing I know how to do it,” he says. “I can see the vi­sion when I’m hold­ing the wire, so I just bend it be­cause the pic­ture is in my head.” A large ze­bra will take al­most a week from start to fin­ish, with the frame alone tak­ing a whole day.“You can’t rush with cre­at­ing a good thing,” he says.

The sec­ond task is to thread the beads onto long strands of 0.7 mm wire. He evens up a bun­dle of 10 long wires and sharp­ens one end by rub­bing them on the pave­ment.Then he prods their points re­peat­edly into a bag of beads to spear them. A shake or two jig­gles them down the wire, then he pokes them around the bag again. As the skeins are com­pleted, he twists the ends to lock the beads in place.

Fi­nally, each string of beads is placed onto the frame one at a time, and painstak­ingly tied on with fine fil­a­ments of wire ev­ery few cen­time­tres. I’m as­ton­ished. Can’t you just place 10 skeins on the frame and tie them all on at once, I ask? He looks at me like I’ve just asked Leonardo daVinci why he doesn’t rather use spray paint, and shakes his head pa­tiently.

TAI­LORED TO SUIT DE­MAND

Chisvo is a fa­mil­iar face in the car park, and sev­eral peo­ple wave or shout a greet­ing as they pass. “It’s busy here, so it’s a good place to work,” he says.“I have reg­u­lar cus­tomers and some peo­ple place or­ders. I like to make the things that peo­ple are look­ing for. If they want ducks, I’ll make ducks. If I see they like gi­raffes, I’ll make gi­raffes.”

He’s a savvy busi­ness­man too, tai­lor­ing his out­put to suit the sea­son. In Fe­bru­ary he makes roses and flow­ers, and for Easter he pro­duces rab­bits.“In De­cem­ber, it’s Christmas dec­o­ra­tions like stars and bells and rein­deers, and rhino when there’s dis­cus­sions about rhi­nos,” he says.

He lives in Hill­brow, and sells enough to make a de­cent liv­ing. But his earn­ings have to cover the rent for a store room so his tools and fin­ished items can be locked up safely ev­ery night. He has a trad­ing per­mit to show the po­lice, so they can’t ha­rass him or con­fis­cate his goods like they used to.

Chisvo knows many other bead­ers and some­times vis­its them to look for new ideas, or to tell them about some­thing that’s sell­ing well on his patch. “We help each other out. Most of them are from Zim­babwe – they’re home boys,” he says.

His work costs from R85 to a cou­ple of thou­sand, and you can hag­gle, of course. But his wide grin and friendly eyes will prob­a­bly charm you into of­fer­ing more than he’s ac­tu­ally ask­ing for – which is just as well, be­cause his work is def­i­nitely worth it.

Open­ing Page: Owen Chisvo puts a ze­bra on dis­play at his trad­ing point in Greenside. Third Page: Over the years, Chisvo has learned the in­di­vid­ual physique of each of the an­i­mals he crafts, mix­ing real­ism with art. This Page: Work­ing with dif­fer­ent thick­nesses of wire, Chisvo crafts the frame of a flower, and beaded hoopoes bob­bing in the breeze.

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