IN CONVERSATION WITH MARA LOUISE FLEISCHER
Born in 1964, Mara Louise Fleischer is a South African artist and photographer who has a special love for recycling, turning waste to wealth. She had no idea about her course of study after leaving school so started a small business, sewing bespoke jackets from remnants of upholstery fabric and selling them at street markets all over Gauteng in South Africa. Following her initial success, she continued to develop other businesses, seeking different opportunities and connecting products, people and skills. Fleisher later decided to study Industrial Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town. During her studies, she came up with the idea of Green Glass,which she started with her brother Philip Tetley and Sean Penrith. After two years of running the business, Green Glass was invited to start up in United States. The challenges there were enormous, and after 10 years in the United States she decided to return to her passion of craft in South Africa where she has developed and worked with many other entrepreneurial businesses like Retyre and Du Noon Urban Weavers. Presently Mara Louise Fleischer serves as full time Creativity Facilitator at CCDI – Cape Craft and Design Institute, Cape Town as She has received several awards for her work including Green Glass ‘UK Recycled Product of the Year’ at the 2001 UK National Recycling Awards and the Design Style Design Award in 1983 for The Most Innovative Time Piece. In 2004 Green Glass was featured in the Taschen publication “1000 Extra/Ordinary Objects.”
You studied Industrial Design and over the past decades, and have worked extensively in recycling and sustainability in different African countries, Haiti and the United States. Why are you passionate about these issues?
My first conscious awareness of recycling was on a trip to Malawi in 1982– I was walking through Zomba Market and spotted a young woman sitting on a grass matt surrounded by at least 50 fragile glass light bulbs, all upside down and hanging delicately off a simple tin frame. On closer observing,I realized she had transformed them into beautiful paraffin lamps. The incredible simplistic beauty bowled me over. The transformation of such an abundant waste into necessity and so perfectly interpreted! The image of that light bulb has been my design mantra ever since.
Did you face any particular challenge in the different geographical locations, If so what?
Absolutely! On starting Green Glass in South Africa in 1984, there was a desperate struggle to collect the wine bottles. My partner at the time and I,would search every garbage bin – going to restaurants were we knew we would find the specific bottles we were looking for – many hours of desperate searching in stinky garbage dumps. The challenge eventually evolved into us encouraging and employing many small start-ups where we employed others to source, clean and deliver bottles to us.Shebeens in townships were our first accessible supporters. We were invited to the United States where we didn’t even think recycling would be an issue. No one was recycling or even knew what we meant when we landed in United States and had to import recycled bottles from Canada!
The timeline was the biggest challenge and when we started selling our recycled glasses at markets, the first question is ‘What is recycling and why the heck are you doing this?’
Having worked as a consultant and creativity facilitator on many projects in the Small Medium and Micro-sized Enterprises (SMME) sector, what was your experience like, how have your participants fared and how were you able to get the entrepreneurs creative and develop ingenious problem solving skills?
That has been, and still is, an ongoing passion of my life. Creative thinking/problem solving is so endemic to all of Africa – it is where I first got my inspiration – yet the conscious application seems to stump people’s recognition of their individual creativity/ability. I think it has to do with people all over the world, not recognizing that they have the answer within themselves, and that it is not greener or more clever on the other side! I believe my main contribution has been to facilitate people in realizing their own creative potential, through empathy and connecting the dots.
In 2014, you worked with Du Noon Urban Weavers on a pendant lights project Africa meets China for Nandos’ international franchises, using sustainable imisi and typha to create innovative products. Can you tell us more about this project and how sustainable the materials used are?
The resulting designs were another light bulb moment for me. Working in a community that is politically, socially and financially desperate, I realized that the very much despised invasion of the Chinese in Africa is actually a much needed part of a poor economy. Every household has at least three brightly coloured plastic buckets – used to collect water, cook, clean and wash pots, and clothes, and as well as bathe—all bought at very affordable prices in contrast to the highly priced buckets available elsewhere. I used the plastic as a base for the lampshades because the world expects ‘cheap’ hand crafts from Africa,yet most of the poorer communities have to survive and purchase their essentials in very first world economies. Using the plastic as a base allowed less production time thus less costs.The imisi was being cleared out of the marshes in the surrounding area by the City Council and was an available and free resource.
I was lucky enough to have the products recognized by Nandos, which loved the story and promoted the lampshades profusely through all their franchises in South Africa, The United States and Canada.
In 2013 the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) South Africa commissioned you as co-author for Business Manual for Craft Producers. How did you get involved with and how effective has this manual been?
As a creative facilitator and consultant to the Cape Craft and Design Institute (CCDI) for many years, I was asked to assist the CCDI to author this manual. The resulting booklet has been a fantastically useful tool to use while in field training – mainly because it speaks the language of the entrepreneur as most of the co-authors also having been entrepreneurs.
You founded and were the head designer of the RETYRE project in 2011. What inspired this venture of creating décor items from old tyres and how were you chosen to participate at the Design Indaba 2013 and Joburg Fringe 2012 lifestyle fairs in South Africa?
I wish I was the genius who came up with this idea! Tyres are used prolifically in Asian countries as well as North Africa – once again the ingenious creativity that abounds through ‘need’. I simply connected the beauty of the material to the very adept producers, and evolved the material into very classical contemporary designs. The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) sponsored me to attend the Design Indaba. I had the vision to recognize the brilliant use of material, develop classic designs, and connect it to producer and market.
Your first Nigerian and West African experience in product design and implementation was in 2012 where you designed three exhibition stands for the Nigeria Fashion and Design Week. What was your experience like?
I absolutely loved working in Nigeria. It was an eye opening experience to meet and live in the world with people I had only understood from brief meetings in South Africa. I eventually understood that the chaos and madness had its own sanity and discipline, and that creativity and ingenuity was everywhere! To thank for this excellence, I have Soji Akinkugbe, the CEO of Colours in Africa, who works passionately to connect creatives from all walks of life.
You worked with UNESCO for two years in Mozambique as an international consultant in product development and cultural and creative industries policies. Are these policies being implemented several years later?
Unfortunately I cannot say yes, mostly because there are so many other issues that take precedence in developing countries. But the seed is planted and the awareness that was created will remain and grow when the time is right.
You established a franchise retail concept, Metamorphosis in the 80s ,which only showcased sustainable, recycled gifts and corporate products, while providing fair trade employment. Do you think employees in developing countries have a better voice now to decry injustices against intolerable working conditions imposed by big retail chains?
Yes absolutely – again because the seed has been planted and people recognize what they can and cannot accept—the necessary consciousness around fair trade, which is growing in developing countries. Developed countries are also understanding the implicit responsibility and role they have, in not supporting these injustices, as well as wanting to understand the conditions around the production of an item.Thankfully, the trend now is very much around the importance of understanding ethics above the actual product being purchased.
Another aspect of your work is photography and you have held exhibitions like Evolutions in Design, in the Centre for Visual Arts gallery, Wisconsin, United States. Are you working on another photography exhibition soon?
I lost the sight in my right eye while working in Mozambique and somehow the ability to ‘see’ through a camera lens vanished, but the amazing news is that I am expecting my eye sight soon ( technology) and I hope I will haul out my camera again!
Miracles happen and ‘I am blessed’ – a beautiful greeting I learnt in Nigeria!
As the daughter of an artist known for his stone, copper and bronze sculptures and murals, would you say you naturally followed in his footsteps and did he influence you in any way?
Yes, purely by watching him work. My father, Michael Fleischer, taught me how to see, how to love work, the combined use of tools, as well as my head,hands and environment, to achieve an outcome and to love the process. I have so many times in my life stopped what I was doing in crazy environments, and thanked him for what he taught me.
Having visited and lived in several cities in Africa, Europe and the United States, where is your favourite travel and holiday destination?
Simply home. But given the opportunity, I love to work in any new place. That is how I absorb, learn, empathise and understand any culture or community I have the luxury to visit.
Do you have any new projects you are working on?
Yes, I am excited to pick up my camera – soon!
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