The layered effect: Mixing African artefacts into your product assortment
Time-worn, textured artefacts bring softness and soul to contemporary living spaces. These handcrafted objects tell stories of distant lands and times past – something Lara Tatley of Togu’na knows well. She has travelled through some of the most remote parts of Africa, shared meals in artisans’ homes, and built up a vast network of suppliers from Mali to Cameroon. Her knowledge of African craft and her innovative approach to product development has enabled Togu’na to offer both modern and timeless décor for today’s consumer.
Togu’na started when I became tired of working in an industry where traders and rural craftspeople always seemed to get the short end of the stick. I was convinced there was a kinder, more sustainable way to do business where people at both ends of the transaction could benefit. I began to work with traders and craftspeople to make or collect more marketable pieces, giving constant feedback and guidance along the way. This was an opportunity to exercise my creativity, fired by an African art lecturer during my sculpture degree.
My husband, Duncan, heads up our workshop and is the mastermind behind product intervention and development. The rest of our 25-member team is responsible for everything from sourcing to dispatching. Togu’na is the Malian name for a meeting house found in the centre of every Dogon village, a place where the elders come to make decisions about village life. The ceiling is deliberately low so that no-one can spring to their feet and shout, and this ethos of respect has formed the cornerstone of our own togu’na. Every one of us is valued for our own contribution and we operate as an extended family.
Although our specialty is sourcing used pieces that we restore, we do carry a range of contemporary (made for market) pieces, but everything we sell has been hand-made by an artisan in Africa and is therefore genuine. It’s an important distinction to make, because genuine doesn’t necessarily equal old and contemporary certainly doesn’t equal mass-produced in a factory! However, everything we source is hand selected for quality and aesthetic appeal.
Every piece is restored or developed to some extent. Because of the distance our pieces travel to get to us, even the most beautiful bowls will arrive carrying evidence of their original use. It’s very important to us that the history and the integrity of this piece is honoured, no matter what process it undergoes in our workshop.
To give you an idea of development, let me tell you about our coffee tray tables. Historically, coffee trays from Ethiopia had short legs as coffee was served on the floor. There wasn’t really a market for these in contemporary homes as the short legs made them awkward on a table. One of our staff members had the genius idea of extending the legs and turning it into a side-table – and suddenly these coffee tray tables are bestsellers! This is the type of development we do, which represents a small but significant portion of our range.
I like to think of it in terms of knowledge – I believe a quality object has an intrinsic beauty and have shared my knowledge of what makes a piece beautiful and high quality with my suppliers, who in turn have shared this with runners who travel on foot into extremely remote areas to find the best pieces. This shared aesthetic and appreciation seems to somehow transcend language and cultural divides. When an order arrives or someone brings their wares to show us, our buyers take the time to consider every piece and hand-select those that meet our standards. Similarly, this aspiration for quality resonates with our customers and it’s very rewarding to think of a piece made by a talented crafter in rural Africa ending its journey as a prized souvenir in the global home of our customers.
Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana and many other African countries, as well as Indonesia.
The travel itch gripped me while I was at university and to a large degree is responsible for the existence of Togu’na. I would explain this experience as a broad-band love relationship since buying trips in Africa tend to be as brutal as they are insightful. The idea of travel for collecting is romantic, probably kindled by the hope of making a discovery, but because the craftspeople are spread over vast distances and live hand to mouth there is less and less product available for collecting. This has necessitated our having to enable production so that we can build up enough stock to make shipping cost-effective – a lengthy process taking months and sometimes years, further reducing the viability of travelling.
I’ve been privileged to be invited into many homes, meeting families, sharing meals, hearing stories – from very westernised contemporary homes in Ethiopia and extended family compounds in Nigeria, to rural dwellings in Swaziland and artisanal centres such as Foumban in Cameroon. I’m always struck by the creative skills of the crafters, the labour intensive manufacture process, the perseverance and resourcefulness demonstrated by the suppliers. Sadly, a common theme is the threat that craft skills aren’t being handed down as the youth aspire towards modernity, not to learning traditional craft methods.
My favourite romantic trip was to remote, northern Ethiopia, where I walked inside the churches carved into the bedrock in Lalibela and experienced an almost tangible sense of spirituality, and further north in Aksum seeing the church purported to house the Ark of the Covenant, and walking amongst the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s castle. Whilst there I read Graham Hancock’s book The Sign and the Seal and was struck by the interconnectedness of ancient Africa and biblical history.
There’s definitely a more wide-ranging demand by international audiences. African art is no longer just for serious collectors or the well-travelled. It’s particularly important to us to release the hidden specialness of pieces by telling their story. For example, that this basket was woven for a young woman on her wedding day, then used in her outdoor kitchen to chaff grain for her children. That it may have been traded to pay for school fees or to buy food for her family. That it travelled thousands of kilometres, via ox-back and roof-stacked bus, with a trader from Zambia who had to sleep in a tree when the river flooded. These are the types of stories that enrich a piece, and remind us that African art is not trendy or fast-fashion.
When I first started in this industry, collectors tended to associate with the tribal nature of Africa and there was a huge demand for authenticity. But over time buyers have transitioned towards the more timeless, décor-type pieces that can seamlessly transition into contemporary living spaces. This is where our unique beneficiation comes into its own as we develop new products and modernise traditional ones. Utilitarian objects such as bowls, baskets and side tables have become a lot more popular than “novelty” pieces like masks or trade beads. That said, everyone loves a beaded piece like the Namji dolls.