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The Ruoko Project at Elephant’s Walk

The Ruoko Project at Elephant’s Walk

The Ruoko Project at Elephant’s Walk

Trading in African art, curios, and jewellery for more than 18 years, Gail Van Jaarsveldt has developed a unique eye for talent and creative expression. But the past ten years have been challenging and hard for retail outlets to maintain stock levels and pay for artefacts.           

Van Jaarsveldt witnessed some of the best Zimbabwean talent leaving home for greener pastures across borders. The biggest wire art company in South Africa is almost totally staffed by Zimbabwean artists, says Christie Brookstein, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Elephant’s Walk Shopping Village in Victoria Falls.           

From hardship a creative solution was born; an empowering initiative called the Ruoko Project will uplift four artists who were struggling to survive in the difficult economic climate.           

“Talented artists were coming to my door to sell their work and I couldn’t buy it,” said Van Jaarsveldt. “I wanted to find a way that these craftsmen could develop their talents, stay within Zimbabwe and have a viable business. All of the members of  the Ruoko Project have exceptional talent, but they needed materials, space to work, business strategising and sound marketing. We have the resources to do this at Elephant’s Walk.”           

“It all happened organically,” said Brookstein. “We knew these people, we knew they were struggling and we realized that by collaborating we could do something special. Between us all, we had the creative ability and energy. We were also becoming aware that today’s tourist likes an interactive experience and that they want to see local talent at work. We had the opportunity to make Elephant’s Walk more than a shopping complex, we could make it a destination.”           

“Since the 90s we have let a select group from the curio market sell their wares within our garden courtyard for free,” said Van Jaarsveldt. “They have always maintained a high standard of work and conducted business professionally, so the blueprint for something bigger was in place.”           

Elephant’s Walk and the Ruoko Project provides the artists with free work space in an appropriate environment, business advice, exposure and international marketing. Artists are provided with the best possible tools for their trade so that they can produce a quality product.

Training is provided to enable the artists to work with a multitude of media.

Gift Sithole, a wire sculptor, now works with gold and silver wire, semi precious stones and does elaborate cast wax moulds for the Ndau studio.

Moses Kalembela the scrimshaw artist has moved on from ostrich eggs and cow horn to collaborating with jewellery artists in creating high-end jewellery pieces.

Leamington Muzhingi, a pencil artist who once believed that unless you were a painter, you were not an artist, is now working on a curated collection where his exquisite pencil portraits are uniquely combined with jewellery.

Obert Monga the mosaic artist who once used to create giant pieces for the City of Johannesburg is back home making gorgeous mosaic belt buckles with stones, beads and bone that sell well.           

“There is an incredible synergy with this project; many of the items are created by more than one person. We also have other people on the fringe of the Ruoko Project who benefit as they may do the beadwork, braiding or cutting. We consider these to be ‘Friends of Ruoko.’ The Ruoko group are aware of their responsibility to empower others and are always willing to share their skills,” said Van Jaarsveldt.           

“We want our artists to work in a stress-free environment, to leave their worries at home and come here and create, and then reap the financial benefits of their work.”

“As an artist I have been empowered to take my talent to another level. I have been given new materials to work with; I have more opportunity to explore my creativity.” Gift Sithole.

“I have been given a home, a place where I am now working to a professional level. Gail has provided me with beautiful materials and I am surrounded by other artists to learn from. The highlight for me so far was collaborating with Kelly Landry (jewellery designer) and seeing our pieces sell well.” Moses Kalembela.
 
“I love drawing bushmen, and I was a bit like a bushman myself, wandering from place to place, country to country. I did not believe that I was an artist; Gail took me from illustrating tin cups and made me realize that I have a talent. I feel I belong here and know that my work is good.” Leamington Muzhingi.

“My mosaics were good for Johannesburg, but Johannesburg was not good for me. I love exploring new ways to work with mosaics, and this project is making me focus on ways to make this work for me. My fellow artists also keep me motivated and on track.” Obert Monga.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 08, March 2012)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Victoria Falls

Zambezi Traveller Directory:
Elephant's Walk Shopping Village