Contemporary Jeweller, M.K Nsika, who goes by the artist name M.Kala, never imagined herself having a career creating jewellery. Born and raised in Brazzaville, Congo, she then moved to France where she studied literature before relocating to London and became a teacher like her parents.
“I always carried Congo in my heart; my masters and university research in literature focused on African writers, but for years I didn’t go back. I wanted to reconnect with this part of me.”
“At first, I did this through literature. But in the last decade I have travelled back and forth to Congo; visiting my father, helping him with his school project, and also exploring the country with my young family.”
Reconnecting with Congo's Craft
It was a trip back to her childhood home which renewed M.Kala's interest in Congo's craft culture and the stories behind these handcrafted treasures.
“I had grown up by the banks of the river Congo, surrounded by artefacts decorated by repetitive patterns. And yet I was ignorant of their meanings and origins. I started to meet with artists and artisans and was very lucky to meet Remy Etsion, one of our major artists. He told me stories of plants, of symbols hidden in his paintings, those to look for in sculptures and craft.
"And I started to be very taken by the need to reconnect my present to this almost lost story. At first, I was looking at ways I could help existing artisans and artists, but soon I realised that I wanted to get my hand dirty.”
“I like to say that jewellery came to me – rather I went for it - because it can be started with whatever you have at hand. Like choosing materials from the space you want to talk about... It is also an art that you wear close to the skin, enhancing this special bound between the piece and its owner. It can embrace all crafts which also satisfies the curious inside me.”
To further satisfy her curiosity of African craft (in particular that from Congo), M.Kala set off on a journey to gather all the information that she could, discovering some fascinating stories in the process.
“In a book published recently by a friend, "The Vanishing Kuba Textile" by Manitou Tsaka, I read an inspirational story. A Kuba King who received a motorcycle as a gift by missionaries was more interested by the patterns the wheels made on the sand than the motorcycle itself. So much that he had the patterns copied, weaved and the new designed named after him! The Kuba love patterns and so it is true in all of the Kongo regions.”
“Also, I discovered a fantastic exhibition by the MET museum called “Kongo: Power and Majesty.” This exhibition stressed the importance of the diamond shape, the infinity of the lines, the importance of the repetition in Kongo designs…Then I discovered the work of John Mbiti on “African religion and Philosophy”.
“To this day, I am still ashamed not to have included him in my previous academic papers (regarding the perception of time) instead relying more on the work of occidental philosophers such as Bachelard.”
M.Kala explains John Mbiti’s ancient belief that “history moves “backward”… to the Zamani period (representing the past or the death)”.
It is these ancient beliefs, and those of the Kala concept and Kongo cosmogram, that provide inspiration for many of M.Kala’s jewellery sets. “I found it so poetic” she explains.
She then quotes the explanation of the Kala concept by Dr. Fu-Kiau Bunseki which inspires her:
“Man is a second sun rising and setting around the earth. He has to rise as the sun does in order to Kala, to be, to become, to light fire.”
What Is Jewellery Really Worth?
Not only does M.Kala take inspiration from these ancient beliefs in Congo, but also the materials which can be found there.
M.Kala considers the context of the materials that she uses and the environment which they come from. Her first collection “Sand and Fire” was created in-part using beads which are traditionally crafted in Ghana using recycled glass. Through careful consideration of the materials she chooses to use, M.Kala’s uses her bold, yet minimalistic jewellery to tell a powerful story.
“Jewellery is traditionally a craft that searches for these very precious materials - rare materials that we have mined for, enslaved or killed for. Then we transform these materials to embed them with meanings of power, wealth, belonging (religious, family, place) therefore identity (family, place, religious).”
“We haven’t become richer, healthier from all that what can be found in our soils, forests, water. Quite the contrary. So sourcing precious metal in the most neutral way possible is very important to me. I could not participate blindly.”
M.Kala visited a small village of gold panners in the Mayombe forest to explore how she could directly buy gold in a fair and ethical way, and was shocked at what she discovered.
“I understood how naïve I was. I witnessed the pollution of the river, the wild competition between the local panners and Chinese workers (on my second visit angry young men from the village were firing guns after the destruction of vegetable gardens by machine digging for gold), the corruption of the low paid forest guards, the children helping in the water, the alcoholism of the men… I just couldn’t on my own respond to all these issues…Buying gold there would just feed despair. Fair trade mining is great but it is usually done well in developed countries.”
M.Kala hopes to soon have the time and resources, to undertake the research needed to trace fair-traded gold back to its source in Africa. Until then, she will continue to use mostly all recycled metal in her work. “Similarly, I decided to avoid precious stones in my design for now” she adds.
M.Kala then points out the irony of calling such problematic materials 'precious' when mining them has such disastrous consequences.
“I am fascinated by the way we decide what is “precious”. Nowadays, the more we need a raw material, the more we depend on it, the more we exploit it and, most of the time in consequences, the less valuable it becomes. Scarcity controls the monetary value of one material.
"However, there are costs that arises from intensive exploitation. Such as damages to environment, to habitats, to workers’ health, to fauna, etc. The direct consequence of this is the scarcity of life itself: reduction of quality of life, reduction of life expectancy, reduction in the variety of life forms...”
“Though life is indisputably very precious, the losses suffered in the process of mining, farming and producing aren’t considered when we value the material exploited. We do even apply extreme violence but we won’t translate the reality of the sacrifices made.”
“Scaling down prices down at all cost has become an essential part of how we imagine progress: goods should be affordable to all, consumption is happiness. Life is continually depreciated.”
Storytelling Through Design
M.Kala explains that she is still weighing up how to express all of this through her jewellery.
“I am studying two different approaches. In both I like to stay minimal and simple in the design, with little decorative items to enhance the raw material I am working with.
"One approach is influenced by the observation that symbols are usually simple geometric shapes. I revisit ancient symbolism. I research sculptures, rituals, and local cosmology to create new pieces. Like in the Kala collection."
“The other approach is about texture and mental imagery like in the birth Collection.”
M.Kala says that the creative design process to her is a meditative process akin to dreaming.
“What I love is to create. To imagine something and through myself into making it or experimenting with it. Sometime it is a happy birth of a form I know I can take further and mature, sometimes it isn’t but I learnt something and I can think more. It is the most exciting part.”
For future collections M.Kala already has ideas about new materials that she wants to use and celebrate through her work.
“After exploring working with glass beads from Ghana, I want to come back to Congo. I have already researched designs featuring palm nuts. They are highly politically charged globally. But that palm tree is native to Congo and also our traditional food (therefore precious to us), and at the heart of our culture.
"Our land was called by the first explorers “the land of the palm tree”. So yes I have ideas of pieces I want to make with the nut. And also with raphia, which is another palm that grows by our rivers.”
M.Kala shares why and how craft can be used as a powerful tool for storytelling.
“When we create an object, we invest it with part of our selves. What I would call our cultural narrative. How much of it manifests itself depends on the makers and the art he practices, but no creation is neutral. The pieces are a reflection of what we are, what we believe in and where we are when we make them. And others recognise part of themselves in these objects: the place, the culture, the belief.”
“Our mental space is filled with imagery and symbolism that narrate who we are. Craft and arts are crucial in vehiculating these images and shaping our communal identity. It is true for individuals as for communities and nations.”
“In a place where craft is disappearing – like in Congo-Brazzaville - the imagery is filled with topical issues and the temporal layers is generally broken. Old representations have lost their meaning or have their significations replaced. So crafting is a way for me to try to weave new links between the now and the before, to root parts of my identity in a story line.”
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