Mickaël Kra : Jewellery Between Paris Glamour and African Tradition

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This is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of publications on contemporary African visual culture. While much of this literature is focused on studio art, other realms of artistic expression also provide rich insights into the diverse expressions of African creativity in international markets. Mickaël Kra is Africa’s most important and best-known jeweler. He is most closely associated with his use of forms, media, and imagery drawn from Africa’s complex and varied history of body ornaments. His story is told here through ample images, a series of short essays by fashion journalists and colleagues, and short notes by the designer himself throughout the book. While not a scholarly work, this book offers important insights into the global markets and local influences of an important contemporary African artist.
Kra has consciously sought to bring African style to his work in international markets, an endeavor that reflects his own identity. In the words of French fashion journalist Francine Vormese, author of the three biographical essays that introduce sections on the artist’s career, « Ivoirian on his father’s side, French on his mother’s, Michaël Kra has a hybrid soul. » (9) Kra’s early work, created while he was based in New York City following his study at Parson’s School of Design, was inspired by the Baule goldwork of his home country Côte d’Ivoire. His current work, which is prominently featured in this publication, is rooted in San culture, an African tradition distant from his experiences in West Africa, Europe, and the United States. The breadth of his interests and influences makes Kra a particularly fascinating case study for a broad range of readers interested jewelry, Africa, and contemporary visual culture.
Because Kra worked with many of the key innovators in African and African Diaspora fashion, this publication illuminates the larger story of African fashion design. Kra was one of the founding members of the Fédération Africaine des Créateurs de Mode in 1993, and he participated in the first Festival International de la Mode Africaine in 1998. Both events are central to the creation of a cohesive community of African fashion professionals.
The book’s lush presentation is its most important attribute. With over two hundred images, the majority of which are full page, this publication’s impact is far more dependent on images than on text. The images, drawn from studio photographs and documentation of fashion shows, are reproduced on glossy pages. Each is identified with thorough information about the designs, the context of the photograph, even the names of the models. The publisher, Stuttgart-based Arnoldshe Art Publishers, has produced an extensive list of books on diverse art- and design-related topics. Most of these publications are beautifully presented introductions to or surveys of specific artistic genres, media, and artists. Mickaël Kra is essentially an homage, providing a visual survey of this artist’s two decades in the profession punctuated by text that describes and celebrates rather than analyzing his life and work. To characterize the book this way is not to diminish its value, for its documentation of a single artist’s life and career provides valuable information. It is one of just a handful of publications focused on a single African artist, and to this reviewer’s knowledge it is the only book devoted to an African visual artist who works outside the realm of studio art.
Through images that document the range of Kra’s jewelry designs and biographical information that describes the personalities and activities that marked his career, the book offers insights into the challenges and rewards encountered by an African artist who seeks to enter the international market. The majority of the text, which is presented in both French and English, is by French Elle journalist Francine Vormese. Vormese provides four brief discussions of Kra’s life and career: an introduction, an overview of his early years in New York, his success in Paris during the 1908s and 90s, and his on-going projects in Africa, which include fashion shows throughout the continent and his recent work with San women in Namibia and Botswana.
Annette Braun, a consultant who has worked on art and development projects in several southern African countries, contributed a chapter on the « Pearls of the Kalahari » (PKO) project, which she initiated and managed. Her contribution, co-authored with « the WIMSA Team » (Working Group of Indigenous Minorities of Southern Africa), describes the collaboration between Kra and groups of San people (primarily women) in Botswana and Namibia. The PKO project aims to bring together the long-standing San production of ostrich eggshell beadwork with the contemporary global jewelry market, combining Kra’s design sensibility with the San beadworkers’ own aesthetic and technical expertise. The aims of POK are the creation of a new image of the San, who have long been represented solely as a victimized people on the verge of extinction, and the creation of a new source of economic support for San communities. In a short piece on the POK project, Sandra P. Tjitendero, advocate for economic and cultural development in Namibia and wife of the late Speaker of the country’s National Assembly, writes of its powerful implications of Kra’s work: « That he has been able to create designs that inspire this group of San women to raise the level of their work from craft to art, is truly a breath-taking and ground-breaking vocation. » (129)
The final piece is by Esther Kamatari, a member of the Burundi royal family, former model, and social activist. Her contribution is a short celebration of Kra’s work, describing her first encounter with his work. She provides an effusive description of the impact a single necklace by the artist had on her state of mind. Like the book as a whole, Kamatari helps readers to appreciate Kra’s work; her enthusiasm may well lead some to dig more deeply into his influences and his location within the larger worlds of jewelry design and contemporary African visual culture.

///Article N° : 6925

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