Spotlighting South African craftsmanship

A ceramic pot is decorated with serpentine designs that entwine brilliant flora, fauna and natural scenery.

Little do the viewers know, but this work is the product of two minds — a sculptor and a painter, who do not communicate with each other.

“The sculptor steps aside and the painter expresses his vision,” says Jim Byrd, owner of Nkosi Imported Crafts LLC. “There is significant trust between the artists for the sculptor to give the work over to the artist. They do this incredible work.”

A vase adorned with birds and an intricate butterfly design. Photograph by Howard Zoubek.

It’s just one of the unusual, nature-inspired pieces you’ll find through his business, which is dedicated to importing and selling the work of South African artisans. Recently, he showcased the earthenware of Owen Maseko — a Zimbabwean visual and installation artist — at the Harlem Fine Arts Show in Manhattan, a traveling exhibit and sale focusing on the African Diaspora. Maseko’s use of vivid colors and attention to detail mirrors South Africa’s geography and the wildlife that inhabits it.

Byrd has been selling art through his Plainsboro, New Jersey, company since 2007. Before that, he worked for Telcordia Technologies Inc., a telecommunications company that brought him to South Africa for five years. There he helped upgrade the nation’s telecommunications, form new local businesses, provide a reliable source of electricity for these businesses and build a new library in KwaZulu Natal, a coastal province. And there in South Africa, he formed connections with artisans. Eventually, he started seeking ways to help them gain recognition for their work. 

“I started to look at developing international market channels for these gifted, talented craftspeople,” Byrd says. “It was an amazing experience for them and for me.”

With more than a decade of experience, Byrd continues to rely on these personal connections, which form the basis of his business. At art shows and on his website, he offers a selection of works that often have an interesting history. 

The Zulu Nala Clay pots, for instance, are made using an exclusive technique developed by the Nala family more than 75 years ago in Eshowe, a town in a remote part of Zululand. Ntombi Khumalo developed the skills, which she passed on to her daughter, Siphiwe; granddaughter, Nesta Nala; and great-granddaughters, Jabu, Thembi and Zanele. Nesta, who has since died, adorned her pottery with distinct designs, which garnered global recognition at the Cairo International Biennial for Ceramics in 1994 and the National Ceramics Biennial in 1996. 

Byrd also sells Zulu baskets, which were traditionally used in ceremonies and for household chores. The baskets vary in size and include Isichumo baskets, which stored water; large Ukhamba baskets, beer; Isilulu baskets, grains; Isisquabetho and Imbenge baskets, food to be served; and Iquutu baskets, herbs. 

Also available are Oumi dolls, which are traditional African dolls made in Senegal, in West Africa, as well as ceramic pottery, beaded ceramic vases and African cards. The cards are made by a women’s group in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. They are crafted using mixed media — including wood, feathers, beads, cloth, metal and bone — and inscribed with notes to be given as gifts or displayed as art. 

Now stateside and retired, Byrd still strives to make a difference in the lives of the artisans he works with by donating a portion of the proceeds from each sale to help support the people in that particular artisan’s village. He plans to work with museums to showcase the works and eventually have the items — which retail from $70 to $8,500 — represented in luxury department stores.

As he says, “They’re one-of-a-kind, museum quality, amazing pieces.”

For more, visit nkosiimportedcrafts.com or call 908-578-9816.

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