Somewhere close to the cradle of civilisation in Africa’s core, is a place called Kapoeta – and also the heartbeat behind Ambica Shah’s jewellery. Think dark blue skinned people in hot desert light adorned more in their beads than in clothing with customs their ancestors would be proud of.
Kenyan born, half Dutch, with Indian ancestry, Ambica’s style is as migratory as the bird feathers that have defined it. Found and traded objects form timeless shapes in her newest collection.
A new venture into smithing which she picked up in South Africa has pushed out the boundaries to fashion a crow’s mandible and something that is fragile and brutal at the same time, a thing of beauty to a corsair. It’s a bird’s skull, she tells me over a cup of tea. Similarly, in silver, two sand dollars on a long leather tong are a marvel created from the shape of the bleached and brittle skeletons of sea urchins that wash up on our Swahili shores.
Curious as to why skulls and bones have endured the tests of time, moving from zany biker chic via gothic gusto to urban panache – I found that these symbols, are not restricted to wannabe pirates or Wiccan followers but that along with feathers in caps and so on, are found in almost all cultures.
Feathers indicate victory of some sort, perhaps from a hunt or as an accolade to be earned like the Amerindian chief’s war bonnet. And bones, more specifically the skull, is what remains for thousands of years after the mortal being ceases. But, due to their savage origins these motifs have remained with the risky fashionistas.
What Ambica has done to these niche, alternative metaphors, is refined them so that they come away from the fringes into the mainstream. She’s transformed a remain into a talisman that a board director or bohemian artist may relish equally.
She’s a one person band with a helper, a marketing background from Spain and a curiosity for far flung cultures. Having gone to school in Kenya, she describes Madrid as a monoculture which was easier to navigate than larger European cities.
“Dinka women inspire my work” she says, when we talk of sources of chicken feathers, all sustainable and renewable, some from the fly fishing industry. Her collars or capes like those of birds or ruffs of yore, are all different. She works with what she can find, not planning too much in advance but letting the construction evolve and “that’s what makes a unique piece”, she adds.
Her own ears glisten with ornate ear plugs designed to widen ear lobes but she isn’t stretching hers, she uses them to hook a bunch of feathers, that trail to her shoulder. Her nose is pierced and her neck is embellished in a fine string, otherwise she is simply dressed with nothing cluttering about in excess.
She describes her work as “raw, organic and with a beauty in decay”. Lately, her jewellery has attracted the attention of high end wearers for photoshoots. Pop star Katy Perry’s backing singer shot a music video in Kenya wearing Kapoeta.
As all things ecological are on trend, I see Ambica riding the wave that drives our collective soul. She’s connecting us. This yearning for meeting with our very source is what it means to wear a Kapoeta piece. A thoroughly modern idea with ancient roots.
Kapoeta can be found at the Alchemist, a name almost reminiscent of her work, in Nairobi’s Westlands and online through etsy.