Over in Santa Fe's historic Railyard district, you'll find an up-market store full of both fine contemporary arts and crafts and old ethnographic pieces from across the length and breadth of Africa. The five-year-old Casa Nova is the brainchild of Natalie Fitz-Gerald. Born and raised in Johannesburg, Fitz-Gerald speaks six languages, is an ardent traveler and collector and the first woman ever to be seated on the South African Stock Exchange.
When she moved to the States and married, Fitz-Gerald filled her home with art, tableware, dishes, decorative accessories and textiles from the countries of Southern Africa-Lesotho, Swaziland, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi and Mozambique. The constant barrage of questions from friends and guests asking "Where can I get that?" eventually led her to open a store in Santa Fe, stocking it with everything from her favorite artists and designers. The selection has kept on expanding ever since, to include handmade and one-of-a-kind items, as well as rare and old collectibles, from countries like Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Cameroon, Zaire, and more. In fact Casa Nova's reach is global, incorporating the arts of Asia too.
Your first impression when you walk in the door is a blast of color. Sunny, bold colors run rampant everywhere. Jewelry and beadwork, dishes and baskets, furnishings, pillows and wall hangings-colors play a rhythmic refrain wherever you look. But unlike the mixed-up hot tropical hues in, say, Mexican art, the aesthetic here is graphic and much simpler. Take, for example, the dishes from Mustardseed and Moonshine. Designer Kate Carlyle, based in Cape Town, South Africa, and her staff of artisans create high-fired earthenware dishes in the myriad delicate forms of flowers-peonies and nasturtiums, lettuce leaves and Chinese lanterns, to name a few. Each petal is hand-applied, each cup and plate hand painted in a brilliant palette of reds and oranges, whites, pale blues and yellows. Sitting down to a table set with Mustardseed and Moonshine must seem like dining in a leafy green garden in riotous bloom.
Fitz-Gerald, who frequently does custom interior decorating for homeowners, groups pieces in vignettes around the store to showcase the strengths of African design-spare, edgy lines and sculptural shapes that strikes a very modern note. "Africa abstracted art long before we ever had abstract art," Fitz-Gerald said. "That's why these forms work so beautifully in contemporary settings." She explains that her motto for Casa Nova, "The art of living and living with art," is about "recontextualizing these wonderful craft pieces so you can see how to live with them. They're not just for sitting on a shelf." It also speaks to how much of what we now call art in Africa was first intended for practical, everyday use. So why not use them and enjoy them?
Fitz-Gerald is deeply committed to making Casa Nova a venue for helping rural African co-operatives and traditional craftspeople earn a self-sustaining livelihood for themselves and their families. She collaborates frequently with cooperatives in design, product development and marketing. One of Casa Nova's bestsellers, for instance, is paper votive holders hand made and painted in brilliant colors by a co-operative of HIV-positive women. Another is the celebrated telephone-wire imbenge baskets made by Zulu artisans. The Zulu are famous for their baskets woven from grasses and palm leaf, which are still made in the countryside. Far from their homelands, lonely Zulu mine workers took discarded telephone wire and, using traditional weaving techniques, began creating utilitarian objects. The practice continued and grew, and today is a highly skilled craft with pieces sought after by collectors.
Like other age-old cultures, African artisans pride themselves on constantly making innovations while still drawing on their own heritage and traditions. Fitz-Gerald describes the result as "new Africa," explaining that much of contemporary art and craft is about re-interpreting iconography for urban living. A Xhosa geometric motif beaded onto a woman's ceremonial leather apron now also gets translated onto black-and-white ceramic plates and bowls. A set of cushions in persimmon-colored felted wool features a pattern of circles based on ritual designs of the Hemba people from central Africa.
The story of world-famous Ardmore ceramics probably best illustrates what Casa Nova is about. Fèe Halsted-Berning was a ceramics artist living on her family farm, Ardmore, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. A tile-maker, she decided she needed an assistant. Along came 18-year-old Bonnie Ntshalintshali, a childhood polio victim who could scarcely walk. But Bonnie had an innate talent for color, design and texture, and between the two women, one white and the other black, the Ardmore Ceramic Art Studios has become legendary. The studio, which now employs 80 Zulu women and men, creates fantastical, one-of-a-kind pieces, covered in hand-painted tapestries of exotic flowers and plants with three-dimensional wild animals capering over the sides and handles. You have to see an Ardmore piece to believe it. They are so prized that they are now sold at prestigious London and New York auction houses. Fitz-Gerald has several in the store.
Some stories, like that of the founding of Ardmore, are about hope and transformation. "Everything from Africa has a story," Fitz-Gerald said. "Originally it may have been to celebrate a girl's coming-of-age, or to honor the ancestors, or something worn as protection from evil spirits. That sense of vibrant energy and community continues in all contemporary African art today."
Currently at Casa Nova: "Summit," a special showing of ceramics from contemporary Japanese and Chinese artists exploring the theme of East meets West. Several pieces offer a witty, sardonic commentary on cross-cultural influences, like a sculpture of McDonald's golden arches rendered in yellow with vivid blue Chinese dragons twining across the surface. The exhibit continues through July 31st.
520 South Guadalupe Street
Owner: Natalie Fitz-Gerald