Winds of global fashion swirl through rural Namibia
How an isolated African region became a barometer of tastes and trends in other parts of the world.
A few miles past this dusty, empty town, beyond the place where the tar road ends and donkey carts start replacing cars, the Ibenstein weaving center sits in a grove of thorn trees that sprout from the dry, red earth.Skip to next paragraph
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"You found it," Wolfgang Ramdohr says cheerfully, walking across the dirt courtyard that divides Ibenstein's low-slung, aluminum-topped buildings. His dogs follow him, and then quickly head for the shade.
Mr. Ramdohr and his wife, Anne, run this weaving center, the first place in Namibia to make what are now the country's trademark wool carpets. They are only a few hours from Windhoek, Namibia's capital, but in many ways they are in another world. There was no electricity here until 1990, and until recently a telephone operator had to connect farms to outside lines. Many of the looms are the same as the ones Anne's grandmother ordered built when she started the business in the 1950s; outside, spinners twirl wool by hand.
It is not, at first glance, the sort of place one would imagine as a barometer of global tastes and trends. But in many ways, that's just what Ibenstein is.
The story of what has happened here at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, to Ibenstein, to Namibia's rug art, and to the weavers who make it, is a lesson in globalization. It shows how in today's connected world, even African folk art is affected by changes in regional industry, the whims of Parisian fashion houses, or the shifting values of middle America.
"What people here make is definitely connected to trends in other places," says Louise Casserley, an assistant at Johannesburg's Art Africa, a store that highlights indigenous art from around the region.
For instance, she says, recycled and "green" African art is becoming much more popular, in large part because of a growing European and American inclination to buy "sustainable" pieces. And as regional industries ebb and flow – partly because of global demands – local crafters change how they use related materials.
Namibian bracelets made of PVC pipes, colorful South African bowls made from telephone wire, and Zimbabwean sculpture made from hubcaps – these all rise and fall with waves of seemingly unrelated consumer demand.
"People have used ingenious things for art," Ms. Casserley says. "They use things that are around." The Ibenstein story starts the way many of these African art tales do: with a byproduct.
In the early 1900s, colonists here were struggling with how to make vast and arid German South West Africa (now Namibia) productive. When they found that farming wasn't working, they tried importing Karakul sheep, a central Asian breed whose pelts were considered the height of fashion throughout Europe.
The sheep flourished, as did the ranchers. By the 1930s, the 10 ewes and two rams imported two decades before had become 1.7 million sheep; by the 1960s, there were 5 million. And demand was ever growing.
"All of southern Namibia's development was financed by the Karakul," Ramdohr says. "The sheep were called 'the black diamonds of Namibia.' "
The popular sheepskin coats were made from lamb pelts. But to have a steady supply of lambs, the farmers needed breeding sheep. And adults need shearing twice a year.
To most farmers, the wool was useless – too coarse for clothing. Some threw it away; others used it to help pave roads. But at the large Ibenstein farm near Dordabis, Marianne Krafft decided to try to use that wool for weaving.