JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — On the streets of Johannesburg, the design is cutting edge, maybe even a little hallucinogenic: a three-foot-high zebra, fashioned from wire and beads, its stripes a rainbow of colors.
Zimbabweans hawking beaded wire animal sculptures at traffic lights are a regular sight in Johannesburg’s wealthy northern suburbs. With few economic opportunities back home, many young men leave Zimbabwe for South Africa to find work, and some turn a childhood skill of building toy cars out of wire into an innovative way to earn a living.
Most of the beaded sculptures are tourist-friendly standbys, ranging from tiny rhinos and elephants, to waist-high lions and impalas, as well as life-sized sheep and goats — inexplicably popular with South Africans.
But when the eye-catching “rainbow zebra” design hit the Johannesburg streets, it was something different, and an instant success.
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“It was a new thing for our customers,” said Boas Manzvenga, part of a collective of Zimbabweans making and selling their creations from their longtime corner spot at Jan Smuts Drive and Bolton Road. “People bought them very much,” he said.
What sets this group of artisans apart from the many other Zimbabweans selling beaded wire animals around the city is the sense of innovation with which they approach their work.
The group is called Kubatana, which means “united” in Zimbabwe’s Shona language, and they plan to formally register as a business in South Africa and develop a website to promote their work overseas. These men may work on the street, but all have email addresses and a few have BlackBerrys.
Manzvenga says they want to maintain a reputation for quality among their customers, with their evolving designs — for example, they are trying out a new line of African bird sculptures. Ahead of Christmas, they sell reindeers. During the 2010 soccer World Cup, it was soccer balls and wire-and-bead replicas of the World Cup trophy.
Customers regularly bring in specific requests for made-to-order beaded wire art — such as beloved pet dogs, or most recently, a set of garish three-feet-high angel and devil sculptures.
But copycats are a problem on the streets of Johannesburg: as soon as the Kubatana collective’s “rainbow zebra” took off late last year, copies of their design began appearing at other traffic lights throughout the city.
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Manzvenga says there is little they can do to protect intellectual property on the streets of Johannesburg.
“The best way to overcome that problem is with quality,” he said. “Some of those guys’ zebras look more like a donkey or a horse.”
Another problem is the police, who regularly target them for being unlicensed hawkers and confiscate their art.
Just last month, the police came and took away all the work they had displayed at roadside to attract passing motorists — $2,900 worth of beaded wire sculptures, Manzvenga says.
But the police harassment isn’t as bad as it used to be. After a run of problems, the group five years ago asked a major art gallery located across the street if they could sell their beaded wire animals from the gallery grounds.
As long as they follow some house rules, the Goodman Gallery lets them sell and even store their sculptures overnight in a fenced-in grassy space next to the parking lot, guarded by a security officer.
So while they still sit next to the road, in order to promote their products to passing traffic, they store the bulk of their work — and the most expensive animal sculptures, such as $2,150 for a life-sized zebra — in the safe gallery lot.