Makila Nsika on her Congo-inspired collection "Sand and Fire"

Posted by Rae Gellel on

The idea that art is capable of traversing time, distance and space first occurred to Makila Nsika when she was studying literature at Sorbonne University in France. This concept caused her to ponder the deep connections sometimes forged between writers and their readers. After settling in the UK, Makila began to consider how similar connections could be created using more physical art forms.

Frequently travelling from the UK to her country of birth the Republic of Congo, Makila would speak to Congolese artists and craftspeople. These creatives told her about the fading African tradition of jewellery making, urging Makila to help revive the tradition. Entering a phase of introspection, Makila emerged ready to explore jewellery making, starting her journey with a part-time jewellery course at City Lit.

Under the brand name M.Kala, Makila’s first fine jewellery collection, Sand and Fire, has debuted at Shine 2021, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s annual showcase of new talent. Whilst the collection was conceived and crafted in Makila’s workshop in Hackney, London, it is a portal to a continent over 5000 miles away. Sand and Fire is an homage to the expansive, complicated and sometimes maligned history of Africa, as well as its rich cultures and Makila’s own relationship with her homeland.

“Jewellery connects us to a place of time, it carries a lot of emotions and can incorporate a lot of different materials,” she explained in a recent interview with the Goldsmiths’ Centre.

“In the past 10 years, I've been revisiting my country, showing it to my children and visiting my dad. I spent a lot of time with artists and artisans there, and through discussions with them, and looking around, I was really sad to see that our craft was disappearing. That inspired me to engage with jewellery making and learn more about it.

The materials used in Sand and Fire are a direct reference to the history of both pre- and post-colonial Africa. In particular, the use of Ghanian recycled-glass beads, are evocative of a time when such beads were considered rare and precious in the region, even used for trade or as a currency. “I wanted to feature some different materials, non-precious materials, that had a special meaning in the history of not only my country, but the history of the continent.”

Makila uses these beads sparingly throughout her pieces, as if they were precious stones and still as valuable today as when her ancestors used them. “By combining the beads with precious metal, I hope to enhance their intrinsic value, which has disappeared in the modern day. In spite of this, beads are still very loved, and are used as adornment in the Western part of Africa and other areas as well. They are beautiful.”

Symbols, shapes and patterns associated with African culture also feature frequently in Sand and Fire; the result of Makila pouring over images of traditional art and textiles for inspiration, before refining her designs through hands-on experimentation.

“It’s very instinctive. I look at images of African patterns, and then I go straight to the metal and play around, working with my hands. When I feel I have played enough, I move onto paper, drawing and designing, defining the images and ideas in my head. Then I move onto making the piece. Playing around as well with the metal directly is very important, because it shows what kind of technical difficulties I may face. When transforming a vision into a real thing, there are a lot of hidden little difficulties that you discover on the way.”

This creative process has culminated in striking pieces such as the Kala Choker, a statement necklace in sterling silver that is reminiscent of African textile designs in its use of repetitive, geometric shapes. “I am very proud of the choker, because of the difficulty involved in making it, but also because it is very tactile and sits very nicely on the root of the neck”, she said of the piece. Makila identifies it as among her favourite in the collection.
“I use very simple shapes like diamonds and triangles. I repeat those shapes, because I am influenced by and really like the patterns that we see in textiles and sculptures not only in the Congo area but around other parts of Africa, as well. Those shapes are heavy with symbols traditionally, but I also like just the simplicity of it and repetitiveness of the patterns.”

The texture of the individual, geometric segments that make up pieces like the Kala Choker area are also grainy, rough to the touch, shining gently under light. This texturing is intentional, aiming to resemble the feel and appearance of sand, corresponding to the collection’s second major theme, and of course, its title.

“The collection is called Sand and Fire. Sand, because I'm featuring glass beads made in Ghana by artisans there, and glass is made of sand and heat, so that’s where the second word, fire, comes from, and fire is a very big part of jewellery making, in terms of soldering for example.”

Working with fire is often precarious and challenging, requiring a delicate hand. Makila approached the process stubbornly, determined to realise her visions even if it required considerable trial and error.

“Because I was using glass beads, I had to be sure I could use the glass under the heat. I had to do a lot of testing to start with - because if you put a glass bead under a direct flame, it will simply explode and not do what you want! I had to learn to gently apply and then cease the heat slowly. Each time I needed to melt the tips of the wire to join a piece, there was always the possibility that I could melt the whole piece. It was quite terrifying at times.”

Richly layered and deeply personal, Sand and Fire is a collection about attachment and connection - an attempt to close gaps between cultures and join the past and present through the medium of jewellery. It is an impressive debut and just a glimpse of what is to come from this unique, multi-cultural maker.

“Being a maker is very exciting. I love having ideas, and giving birth to those ideas - the process of creating pieces, taking an image you have in your mind and creating it. It’s very satisfying.”

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