Why you should care
Because sometimes art reminds us of the beauty of function.
I’ve always got my eyes peeled for clunky, funky jewelry. Upon reaching the second floor of the outdoor Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein, South Africa, during a recent visit, my eyes immediately turned to an array of audacious brass-necked regalia made with recycled zippers, nuts and bolts. Looping and industrial, the science-inspired creations of Sibusiso Bless Mlangeni are like steampunk on steroids.
Nutcase ACTS jewelry is the kind that you’d wear on your free and naked body at Burning Man. And freedom is part of what Mlangeni, 31, is all about. The nuts and bolts he sources from junkyards represent humanity’s entrapment “in the machine,” as he puts it, while the zippers, cut out of discarded clothing found strewn throughout Orange Farm township, represent freethinking. He’s turned everything from leather, beads, keys, ribbon and screws into gender-neutral bracelets, necklaces, earrings and — most recently — an elaborate tentacled crown.
My choices: a surprisingly delicate necklace-and-earring set, woven with zips and bolts, and a pair of cubist-looking eyeglass earrings — both for 950 rand ($72). Which might sound expensive to some, but Mlangeni says he targets fashion-savvy customers who are willing to pay for craftsmanship, not to mention the time it takes time to source, clean and polish the unusual materials.
Mlangeni loves the nut’s polygonal shape and the circular patterns that zips make.
Jacques Coetzee, curator of the Neighbourgoods Market, says he looks for smaller producers who wouldn’t otherwise have the ways and means of getting their products “out there.” And he loves Mlangeni, whose creations are particularly popular among tourists, or locals seeking a statement piece. “He’s extremely creative by repurposing materials into jewelry which are amazing pieces,” Coetzee says. An abstract thinker who can be hard to pin down, Mlangeni says customers appreciate that his jewelry is recycled and “looks royal” — “[It] reminds them of Egyptian and Kenyan royalty,” he says. (I thought of the Zulus.)
Mlangeni began making jewelry six years ago while completing artisanal certifications in drafting and construction science at African Academy and CIDA City Campus. It’s since evolved into an esoteric enterprise inspired by his detailed study of the nut and its role in holding machines together. He loves the nut’s polygonal shape and the circular patterns that zips make. When the materials are joined, he says, observers ask themselves, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Mlangeni also takes inspiration from the science of creative intelligence, a yogic discipline that’s designed to reveal the laws of nature in all areas of study, infusing knowledge with greater meaning. “What drives my work is the spiral,” he says. “The spiral is how the universe re-creates itself.”
Every cent Mlangeni makes from his craft now goes toward building materials for a design school in Orange Farm, where he hopes to share his skills and facilitate accredited courses that fuse art and science. He’s got a long way to go — he plans to build the school himself — and seems a bit naive about the necessary administrative legwork, but he is driven by the same uncompromising vision that has produced such unique wearable art.
GO THERE: Neighbourgoods Market
- Location: Near Wits University on the block between De Korte, De Beer, Melle and Juta Streets in Braamfontein, Gauteng province. Parking is available on nearby Bertha Street.
- Hours: Open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- Pro tip: Go toward the latter half of the day so you can catch the afternoon entertainment, and definitely check out Mlangeni’s dolled-up Lennon glasses.
- You can also place orders through Nutcase ACTS on Facebook. Mlangeni is currently working out how to accept payment for international orders.