In The Corner Gallery in Bathurst – a retail outlet for artist Tori Stowe’s products and local art and crafts, a sewing machine sings wuuurrr-wuuurrr-wuuurrr as I walk in.
A needle dances up and down as two threads interlock around layers of colourful fabric.
The gallery is filled with colour.
Stacked textiles and intricate charcoal drawings.
Ceramic bowls covered in doodles, sculptures and greeting cards.
As bottled preserves shout ‘homemade’ from the back of the gallery, Nomvuyo Gladys Manyati – the face behind the wuuurrr-wuuurrr-wuuurrr – greets me with a gentle hello while her hands meticulously feed the bobbing needle another piece of material.
Gladys, as she introduces herself, learned how to sew from a very young age; she was born in the Bathurst area, went to school in Peddie and came back to pursue her talent and create a life for herself with a needle and thread.
It all started with her hands; the wuuurrr of the sewing machine came years later.
Gladys’ story took me back to the story of my grandmother. Intrigued by knitting and knitwear, she started small and from home about 70 years ago; first she knitted with her hands and then moved on to a machine. Eventually my grandfather quit his job and joined my grandmother in the business as it grew from a room in the house, to a shop, to a factory in the industrial area that is still in operation today (by my father and his brother).
When I asked Gladys if it was difficult to learn how to use the sewing machine (because I vividly remember how I, because of lack of knowledge, once went through half a dozen of needles in one day with a machine) – she responded with, “When something is in you, it is easy to pick it up.”
Needless to say, I had high hopes but did not pick it up, it was not in the genes (even my mother is a sew-pro). I sold the sewing machine a month later.
But when something is in you, you pick it up and Gladys’ brothers did pick it up.
When the orders piled up she needed all hands on deck; her brothers had to learn how to sew and today her kids, who are 12 and 19 years old, also know their way around a needle.
Gladys believes that talents should be shared and takes great pride in not only equipping her family members with the necessary entrepreneurial skills, but also the women in her community.
“There’s nothing you can’t do. Even if I don’t know how to do it, I will learn. I tell people, women are strong. Most of the people working here at the gallery are women. Women are able. Women are very strong.”
But while Gladys knows how to sew anything and everything, it is her fabric toys that she is especially known for.
A few years ago she sat outside in her yard and admired her garden, when she saw the neighbour’s chicken pecking around her spinach. She was extremely cross at first, her spinach was growing so well, but instead of marching over next door to complain about the feathered intruder, she took a piece of paper, studied the animal with her eyes and then started to draw the chicken. With bits of left over fabric she stitched pieces together by hand into a chicken, put it on the shelf to sell and a few days later the fabric chicken got a new owner.
Kuku Craft – her business of handmade products – was born.
After the chicken other fabric animals also saw the light such as elephants, giraffes, cats, animal head mounts like antelopes and warthogs, and also dolls and doorstoppers; today places like The Corner Gallery, and curio shops all over South Africa, stock her unique Kuku Craft creatures.
I walk around the rest of the gallery and between the wuuurrr-wuuurrr-wuuurrr her words ring loud in my ear: women are strong, women are able.
I say goodbye, she gives me a gentle wave and her hands go back to the machine; meticulously feeding the bobbing needle another piece of material, another piece of talent, another piece of herself.
Gladys saw an opportunity in something disguised as a problem, the lost spinach crop is long forgotten, and I am sure if you have to ask her what came first, the chicken or the egg, her answer would definitely be, the chicken.
Kuku Craft by Nomvuyo Gladys Manyati
For more information on Nomvuyo Gladys Manyati’s range of products, visit The Corner Gallery in Bathurst or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Corner Gallery
The Corner Gallery stocks Tori Stowe’s products under the name, Stowe & So. There are ceramics, stationery and fabric products – which are locally printed at the gallery – such as table cloths, bags, aprons, scatter cushions, dog beds, pencil cases and tea towels. And then of course there’s Stowe’s art – charcoal drawings and charcoal and collages – that is a visual story representing Stowe and her “love of nature, comfort in the framework of design, confusion about cultural identity, endless search for a place which is home, displacement and longing for belonging.”
The Corner Gallery is on the corner of Trappes Street and York Road in Bathurst (opposite the Pig and Whistle Inn) and it is worth a visit.
In fact, the whole Bathurst is worth a visit. And not just a day visit – trust me, tried, tested and failed – but a visit that will make you forget about your watch and explore; because there’s more to it than the Big Pineapple, because there’s more than meets the eye, because there’s no thirst like Bathurst and I can’t wait to quench my thirst and discover its depths.