If you had a magical chair to sit in and dream your future, what would that future be? At the HIV/AIDS Centre where Paula works as Craft Co-ordinator, a group of women crafters was inspired to create a chair of dreams. Little did they know how much attention it would get and how far it would travel. Paula is a student in the Philosophy School, Durban.
CHAIR OF DREAMS
Paula Thomson, Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa
The Chair wove its own magic. Everyone we met and who sat in it – we invited them to dream. Some dreams were both simple and shocking at the same time. Lunati, a mother, dreamt of clean water for her children to drink. Dora dreamt of being able to return home to Zimbabwe. There were dreams of a better future, a cure for AIDS, a day in South Africa with no crime. There were dreams that made us laugh – like dreaming of a husband with plenty of money in his pockets! Even Desmond Tutu who was a hero to all of us honoured us with his time.
I remember a child dreaming of being successful businessman. Then he came back an hour later and tugging on my jacket asking for a second chance. The first dream was to make his parents proud, but he would like to have a dream for himself. In his dream he would be playing soccer forever!
We were always surprised. Stereotypes rule South Africa. But every dream blew those stereotypes away. Teenage boys dreamt about ending poverty instead of PlayStations. Pierced and tattooed youths stopped us and wanted to dream too. A dreadlocked fisherman, dirty and grimy from the boats, dreamt eloquently of “more days like this when people from different cultures can talk in an honest and open way”. Sometimes my colleague and I would cry because no day ever seemed more beautiful than the one we were living through these people.
How the Chair of Dreams started
I was working as an art teacher when my school implemented a programme to engage the children in community service. My class started to teach fabric painting to a group of carers at the local HIV/AIDS centre. The idea was for the carers to pass on the skill to their patients who would then make hand-painted shopping bags to sell.
We visited the centre to see their work. Witnessing the joy of people empowering themselves by learning a craft had a profound effect on me. For most, it was the first income they had ever earned.
The experience led me to leave teaching and start the Income Generation project at the Hillcrest HIV/AIDS Centre near Durban. We called it Woza Moya, meaning ‘come winds of change’.
Dreams for Change
So it started with a small group of women; they had few or no skills but were in need of an income. Some had up to 10 dependents, having lost the main breadwinner of the family. Some were living with the death sentence of being HIV positive themselves. The idea was to teach them to be crafters; to empower them by selling their products. Our room was a metal container and the first products were very basic.
After a few years of running the project, we realised that most people arriving at our door had no dreams for the future. So we decided to remedy this by creating a group artwork. Our theme was a Dream for a better future for ourselves, rippling out to our neighbours, our country, Africa and the world.
Creating the Chair of Dreams
How we came to make the Dreams for Africa chair was a happy accident. We wanted to make an artwork that would stop people in their tracks. But we still didn’t know what we would make, when we saw four legs of a broken, discarded chair sticking out of our skip. We hoisted it out and decided to give it a second chance.
Every Woza Moya crafter would make a piece to be be sewn onto the chair. I explained this to them, becoming very passionate, saying that the pieces would tell our group story, whilst embodying the struggles and dreams of each one of us.
The dreams began to flow in with beautiful patches of beadwork, fabrics and embroidery. They depicted dreams to be around to watch their children grow. They dreamed of a roof over their head, education for their children, and being able to buy bread. So many beautiful and sad dreams were stitched together onto this funny chair as it took on its second life. We began to see the chair as a giant praise poem to Gladys, Thobile, Jabu, Nkululeko, Idah…
The Chair also became a metaphor for us at the Hillcrest Centre. We had seen people come in sick and broken, and many times thought they wouldn’t make it. Yet they managed to get a second chance, made possible by hope and love.
We had no idea that the Chair would take us on such an incredible journey. After its initial success at Design Indaba (an annual conference for emerging creatives), we travelled with it, discovering first-hand the diversity and beauty of the people of this land.
Chair of Dreams and Ubuntu
Every piece was necessary. Without the work of any one person the Chair would be incomplete. The crafters knew when they saw their pieces, “this is me, here I am, I exist, I am part of this whole”. The Chair spoke to us all about Ubuntu, our interdependence, and about our shared tradition. It became great by everyone pooling their resources, creativity and strength: everybody from the crafters to the photographers to the German volunteer who made its wings.
By working together, we are held up by the person next to us, our neighbour, and in turn we hold up them too. Since joining the School, my understanding of this has grown tremendously. Philosophy has kept me centred, helped me help others, helped me cope with stress at work and helped me see a bigger picture in the fabric of life.
Dreams of Healing
The Chair opened doors wherever we went. It was invited to Holland and Germany, and twice went to New York. We just followed and made sure it was safe. Whether in the most humble abode or in a celebrity pad, the Chair was at home; its best thing (it did become its own person of course) was just talking to people on the street and inviting them to take a seat… and letting them Dream.
Once engaged, they had to hear our story – about our Centre and HIV/AIDS; why we were carrying the chair up Table Mountain/down the road/onto the boat. They heard how it was made and how we were turning the chair into gold in order to rebuild the craft centre that we had outgrown. We learned to stop, talk and listen. We realised that it wasn’t just the crafters who had forgotten to dream – we all forget, and with the chaos of our lives we don’t take time to dream.
I often felt as if the Chair and what it represented could heal our country. The Chair in its own way allowed people from all walks of life to connect with one another in a deep and meaningful way and with that connection find healing. At our Dreams for Africa Exhibition in Durban Art Gallery, many cried as they recognised that our Apartheid history had stolen this connection from us.
The Dream for the Future
It amazes me that the Woza Moya crafters, coming as it were from nothing and nowhere, and representing the most disempowered groups in the country, have not only inspired South Africans and citizens of the world to dream again but have actively dreamt a better future for themselves.
My dream was that we would sell the Chair for a song. Our crafters, through their beautiful work would pay for their own new craft centre and shop. Fabric painters, potters, quilters, crochet and embroidery groups would have a space in which to work and display their goods, benefiting themselves and generations of crafters to come. That dream has come true. The Chair sold for much more than a song and we have a new craft Hub! The project has now supported hundreds of crafters, men and women who once thought they had no future at all.
Paula Thomson, A Chair Person
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