Entering the small lobby, complete with beaded hibiscus tree and flock of colourful sheep, you know you are in a place of highly creative industry. The shop on the ground floor is filled with beaded fauna, flora and other objects and visitors are invited to go upstairs to the workshop to see the artists at work.
Riaan Hanekom, one of the owner-managers, walks through the workrooms and departments that make up the Streetwires enterprise. The artists sit around tables in a relaxed and sociable atmosphere, moulding the wire armatures and beading them using ingenious homemade technology. In one room they work on an order for a collection of diverse dogs and in a second room they bead dramatic and naturalistic heads of the “big five”.
The creative heart of the company is a small office space where head designer Lauren-Joy Rosenbach, head sample artist Artwell Munenura and a team of sample artists work, creating prototypes which are perfected and costed before being copied by the artists on the floor. The desks and shelves are filled with exquisitely expressive and finely made work. This team has what Lauren calls the “luxury of innovation”: one of the organisation’s great strengths is that they keep on innovating, staying ahead of the competition who knock off their designs.
This contemporary South African art form arises from the tradition of beadwork which has a been a part of African cultures forever, as well as wire sculpture which originated with toys made by township children for their own amusement. At some point people started making windmills which proved to be popular souvenirs. Beaded wire sculpture was introduced into this country by Zimbabwean immigrants and was soon copied so widely that it became the commonplace craft we know.
In the post-apartheid years there was new support for the work of community artists, with corporate conferences wanting to give delegates gifts that were handmade and African. Buying from street artists carried some risk in terms of reliable delivery so there was room to formalise the enterprise. This was where Streetwires came into being.
“One of their great strengths is that they keep on innovating.”
South Africans may be over-exposed to this art form but foreign visitors are still amazed and delighted by it. A large proportion of Streetwire’s orders come from overseas and tour groups regularly stop in during walking tours of the Bo-Kaap.
The organisation currently finds itself at the centre of an unfolding development that has caused controversy. In the face of more than 1000 objections from residents in the Bo-Kaap area, as well as from Western Cape Heritage, the City Municipal Planning Tribunal has approved a 19-storey development over the entire block bounded by Buitengracht, Longmarket, Shortmarket and Rose streets.
Residents objected on the basis that this is “heritage ground”, and the Bridges Not Barriers campaign appealed to the City to block the development on the grounds that it will be hopelessly out of place and will wall off the Bo-Kaap from the city. But the Municipal Planning Tribunal upheld the development plan.
The building that houses Streetwires is on this block and owner Cecily Blumberg has refused to sell it. The new building will be constructed around them and tower above them. Streetwires will trade there as long as possible then they may well have to move. However, they are confident that their enterprise will survive a move because so much of their business is not dependent on the particular location. But the loss to the area will be irrecoverable.