By Carol Tisch for Sarasota Magazine
The romantic notion of the Dark Continent as expressed through the hauntingly beautiful images of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s Out of Africa prompted a 20-year explosion of luxury safaris and camp resorts. Now the siren song of Africa has us swaying to a different beat: that of Precious Ramotswe, owner of Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the heroine of a best-selling book series and new HBO series by the same name.
Not since Sex and the City has the fashion world been more entranced. The series’ exquisite scenery, colorful textiles and quirky clothing are inspiring interpretations of contemporary Africa in everything from jewelry to couture fashions.
Jill Scott, an American singer and actress, has captivated audiences around the world as Mme. Ramotswe. She’s eliciting praise as Mother Africa incarnate and the embodiment of the continent’s vibrant contemporary mood, style and soul. And modern Africa has come to Sarasota as well, from enterprising immigrants who share their culture to the artists, dealers, and connoisseurs who bring Africa’s wines, art and fashion inspiration to our town.
The call of the wild Though he may raise an eyebrow if you ask for a guided tour of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, native Zimbabwean Ryan Hilton has led more than 700 safaris in every corner of Africa over the past decade. As safari specialist and co-owner of Sarasota’s Admiral Travel Gallery, Hilton has consistently been named top specialist for Southern Africa by Conde Nast Traveler magazine—one of the über-agents they say has unrivaled access, connections and destination savvy. Once a safari guide on staff at Landolozi Private Game Reserve in Kruger National Park, the avid wildlife photographer quips, “We don’t do hunting safaris; the only thing we shoot is photos.”
Africa on Display
At first, Africa was simply an alluring destination. Then it became Rebecca Saggau’s passion and ultimately her career. “After my first African safari, I kept going back, each time collecting tribal art and crafts. When my private collection outgrew my home, I opened a gallery with the idea of making a contribution,” Saggau says. She has established philanthropic connections to orphanages and schools throughout the continent, giving back to Africa with every sale. The 2,500-square-foot basement of Saggau’s new Siesta Key home is an appointment-only gallery with rare treasures like this Zulu basket used traditionally for beer storage at tribal ceremonies.
Calling All Connoisseurs
“Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994 ended sanctions against South Africa, but the country’s 350-year-old wine industry needed another decade to revive,” says Michael Klauber, owner of Sarasota’s Michael’s On East and Michael’s Wine Cellar. The Connoisseur Club, a loyalty program of Klauber-family-owned restaurants, several years ago did its part to resurrect the industry with a luxurious South African safari and winery tour, with exclusive tastings at cellars that had been off limits for half a century. What were Klauber’s most memorable experiences in Africa? “Dinner out in the bush under the stars, sleeping outside on the balcony of our room at Singita’s Lobombo Lodge, and dinner alone with my wife, Terri, in the wine cellar at the Boulders,” he replies without a moment’s hesitation.
Africa is Marc Jacobs’ muse in a brilliant spring/summer 2009 collection for Louis Vuitton. Tribal art references abound: shoes, necklaces and handbags adorned with clusters of abstract African masks, stacks of bangle bracelets, skirts, jackets, hats—even ankle straps embellished with brilliantly colored plumes. The look evokes images of retro 1940s glamour. Yet the designer’s thoroughly modern aesthetic shines through every exotic python print and leopard spot.
Jewelry designers are finding inspiration in Africa as well. One of the most notable is Masha Archer. With her au courant mix of new and old materials—antique glass trading beads, Baule Tribes’ gold ziggurats, buffalo horn, ancient coins, even African cameo shell—Archer’s jewelry moves with the body in the manner of native adornments. “Africa was a repository of beads from the glass-making centers of Czechoslovakia, Russia, Italy and India—the tradition of trading beads dates back centuries,” says Archer. “I turned to the African bead trade in the 1980s and developed relationships with the major trading families in Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon. They all know me.” Archer’s jewels are sold at La Perlelle and Saks Fifth Avenue in Sarasota.
Test of Time
“My favorite African arts picker is called Adjibou—I just love the way that sounds,” declares Cheryl Burke of Sarasota’s Burke & Company. “He’s a handsome African man—very friendly with a great big smile and eyes that light up when he speaks to you. Adjibou taught me so much about primitive art from the different regions of Africa. One trick to help you spot airport art—the fake souvenirs people buy as they’re running to catch a plane—is to smell the wood. If it smells burned or smoky, it’s airport art.”
Patterns of Life
Growing up a few blocks from Cape Town’s most vibrant flea market, Gary Stern learned early on to appreciate hand-crafted tribal objects—some functional, some spiritual, some for adornment. Now he re-creates the African open-market experience indoors at Nontando, his Sarasota store. Stern returns each year to the Green Point Market of his childhood, then scours the continent for unique arts and crafts. “I enjoy the variety of creative textiles in Africa. I love the combination of ancient traditions and modern patterns—which really aren’t modern at all—but appear so in their simplicity. You can tell where a cloth is from by how it is made, and from the patterns, which often have a symbolic or cultural meaning,” Stern explains. And most of all, he is inspired by the African spirit. “I meet people who have had a very hard time in life, but they keep going,” he says. “Even under severe restrictions, creativity abounds.”
Dressed to Explore
Exotic prints and relaxed silhouettes—the essence of the Bohemian-yet-sexy Milly label—conjure images of a vibrantly colorful African landscape. Designer Michelle Smith’s ethnically blended patterns in breezy silk chiffon are soft counterpoints to crisp cotton safari dresses, all ready to go and inspiring wanderlust. From hand-beaded bolero jackets to crocheted bikinis, the spring 2009 look is young and flirty, dripping with crafty tassels and fringes, and aimed at chic young followers from Beyoncé Knowles to Anne Hathaway. Available at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Does she have only one name on her passport? We doubt it, but the storied interior designer Clodagh is a global nomad whose newest collection, Clodagh for Perennials Outdoor Fabrics, was inspired by the colors, patterns and textures of Africa. With fabric names like Kilimanjaro, Zulu Stripe and Katanga, Clodagh playfully explores the rich design nuances of this exotic continent.