A portal dedicated to promoting the arts and the artisans of Africa.
If the idea of being a 'portal' seems a bit old-fashioned, it's because we're actually a pretty old website. We launched the first version of the site in 1996, and I remember at the time our website had more pages than IBM's and Microsoft's (it didn't take much). And Google did not yet exist. So, a while ago.
It was a website my friend Louise and I made to promote the work of two African weavers in particular, one was Gilbert "Bobbo" Ahiagble, a Kente weaver from Ghana, and the other was Amidou Coulibaly, a Malinke weaver from the Ivory Coast. It was actually through Bobbo that I first met Louise. I had become friends with Bobbo in Ghana, where I was a peace corps volunteer, and when I was preparing to leave the country in 1990 to return to the States, he asked me to deliver to his friend Louise a few special Kente strips he had made. They were particularly nice strips which he thought she would be interested in seeing.
Louise is a real lover of fiber, of craftsmanship and of traditional techniques. Her enthusiasm was infectious. And my appreciation for Bobbo's work, which I already admired, only grew. She had met Bobbo in 1975 in Washington DC, when he was artist-in-residence at the Museum of African Art. The following year she moved to Ivory Coast where she worked assisting weavers and spinners in the northern region to establish the Union of Craft Cooperatives of the North (UGAN), with the goal of keeping high quality African strip cloth weaving alive. That's where she met the weaver Amidou Coulibaly.
So our initial website was set up to promote the work of Bobbo, Amidou and the UGAN craft cooperative. The early days of the internet, were an interesting time. There were several publications, and books, that noticed our website and wrote about it as an example of what can be done on the web, and how it might benefit artisans in far away countries, in particular, to reach the US market.
We started to meet other people who were working to promote artisans in Africa, and so decided to expand our website to be a so called portal for African art - with artists, educational material, online shopping, an extensive collection of links. A bit of a tall order. At the heart of it were mini-websites for artisans, which included their contact information, pages which they could update, and which was free. Siiri Morley was an early champion of our efforts. She was at the time a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, working with Elelloang Basali Weavers, looking for a way to market the weavers' work internationally. Siiri also helped a number of other artisans in Lesotho get on the web, through the AfricanCraft website. Elaine Bellezza, working at the time for USAID's West Africa Trade Hub, introduced a number of talented artisans in Mali to the website. Ellie Schimelman, who started and has been running for many years a wonderful cultural exchange program in Ghana, through Cross Cultutal Collaborative, introduced a number of artisans from Ghana. And Mimi Wolford, director of the Mbari Institute for Contemporary African Art, introduced us to some of the best known artists in Africa, from Nigeria in particular, as well as posting writeups of some of the exhibitions of contemporary African artists which she has curated.
These, and other people, helped us grow the website. It was encouraging to get this help, and to find there was much interest, but there were also many challenges. Chief among these, artists in Africa, at the time, did not have good access to the internet, if any at all. They relied on individuals, usually foreigners, who could help them gather materials, digitize, and create their web pages. For this reason, most of the artist entries on our website, show as being "submitted" by people other than the artists themselves.
But a lot has changed! Internet access - for a long time now - has been ubiquitous in Africa. There is a ton of information about the arts of Africa on the web nowadays, and artists are of course creating their own online content. The internet, it's fair to say, passed us by. Our website grew old, and there was perhaps less need for what we offered, as artists had so many great options for creating and managing their online presence.
But what is still true is that with this abundance, it is still difficult to find all this content, and difficult for artists to find and connect with their target audience. So we still believe in the need for that 'portal' website that we dreamed of in the late 90s. It still does not exist. So we are redoubling our efforts. We've made an effort to give the AfricanCraft website a cleaner, more streamlined design. It's still a tall order, but we will try our best to make a good starting point for finding online content on Africa's arts and artists. Something better, we hope, than what a general purpose search engine can do.
If you are an artist, or are otherwise engaged in selling or writing about the arts of Africa, please tell us about your work and we will link to you. And if you wish to provide relevant content for our website, we'll be able to give you better visibility.