The Makers # 1 | The Ninevites

MS. NKULI MLANGENI is a visionary, creative, dreamer, traveler, mother, lover of black culture, organiser and maker of things. In an eclectic career she has juggled creating, consulting, studying, DJing, promoting shows, styling and recently, as a maker of exquisite rugs under The Ninevites brand. One of which, The Sankara rug, was recently voted South Africa’s most beautiful object at Design Indaba. In her own words…    

“The Ninevites is a platform and space I use to tell my story using imagery, textiles, design and it’s mostly inspired by black culture, where I grew up, my travels and what I dream about. I first heard the name from a good friend who told me about a film he was working on about black cowboys in Johannesburg in the 1800s. I liked the story and thought it was very interesting. So, I went and googled them and found out that it originated from the bible, a place called Ninevah which is apparently modern-day Iraq.

The Johannesburg reference was a gang that was started by Mr Nongoloza Mathebula who is also known for being one of the founders of the 26’s, 27 & 28 gangs. I think there’s some mythology in it, but I chose it is because in both cases, The Ninevites where the rebels, rebelling against the system and injustice. At the time when I started out I was working as a stylist and I kind of wasn’t feeling what was happening in  fashion so I had this idea of rebelling against it.

Producing South Africa’s most beautiful object  means that some people start taking you seriously, a lot of scary media attention and hopefully means more followers on Instagram. (Ultimately) It makes you want to take your shit to the next level.

I chose the name because The Ninevites where the rebels, rebelling against the system and injustice.At the time when I started out I was working as a stylist and I kind of wasn’t feeling what was happening in fashion so I had this idea of rebelling against it.

(Some years ago) I was studying in this weird Scandanavian school called Kaospilots. I got a scholarship to do the 3-year course in social innovation, entrepreneurship, process design and creative leadership. When I was there it was a bit tough because the Swiss are not the friendliest of people, but looking back I think it was actually a very cool school because the only thing you are expected to be is yourself and to speak your truth. You don’t get graded like other universities and you don’t graduate as one thing, you decide based on your interest what your pilot project is going to be. I learnt a lot about the power of doing instead of talking about what you want to do.
The research question for me when I did my pilot project at the school was how can I create social change using the things that I am passionate about, which were travelling, textiles, design and images? I applied all the tools that I learned at school to figure that out. In the end, I created a project that allowed me to travel to South America, Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho and around South Africa meeting weavers, documenting the process and creating textiles. But I also kind of feel a bit alone in a way because on the one hand I wish I could share some of the cool things I learnt while I was there, but at the same time don’t want to impose the European vibes on people, keeping in mind that it’s a very different world, what works there might not necessarily work here.

(My biggest challenge in setting up) was not having start-up capital. When I was doing the prototyping I was receiving scholarship money from the school, but as soon as I graduated, I didn’t have any income. So, it’s been a hustle, having to balance doing other jobs to be able to sustain myself. It’s really hard to start and sometimes you just want to give it up and go for the comfortable 9-5 and get a salary because it’s much easier.

The initial part of the research was in South America. I spent time in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador where I was checking out the South American textile scene. And there I met some amazing weavers, textiles are a big part of the South American culture and it’s amazing to see. Coming back home I travelled to Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho and rural KZN. Most of the time I just get on the bus or flight, go to the place and ask around because most of the weavers are not online so you have to go and find them. And then I just share with them the ideas and I’m trying to achieve, we try it out and see what comes up. But I am always blown away by how talented and patient the artisans are.

It’s been a hustle, having to balance doing other jobs to be able to sustain myself. It’s really hard to start and sometimes you just want to give it up and go for the comfortable 9-5 and get a salary because it’s much easier.

Handmade is better than machine-made, it has more character. The different weavers have different approaches, for instance the weavers in Peru using natural dyes and the ones back home use artificial dyes. I obviously prefer the natural dyes because they look better and are generally better. But besides that it’s pretty much the same, it’s very beautiful to watch. So the weavers get the wool from the farmers, clean it and prepare to spin it. Then they cook the dyes which are usually plants if they use natural dyes, then dye it which can take days. And then wait for it to dry before the spin it again and then start with the weaving. The weaving can take a long time anything to a few days to weeks.

In the mid-term I hope to move more production locally, support the local weavers in improving their processes and working conditions, connecting them with the market, registering with fair trade and figuring out how we can encourage them to go back to using natural dyes. In the Long term is to work with prison inmates, teach them weaving while they in jail so that they can have some skill when they come out.”

Interview by Mr Siphiwe Mpye

Images by Theodore Afrika

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