Carla Maxine Kruger has been designing jewellery her whole life – since she was fourteen years old, to be exact. She is particularly interested in using her pieces to create a new visual language.
Her undergraduate dissertation explored the relationship between the Dutch and the Khoi at the time of first colonisation at the Cape, and for her masters, Carla searched deeper into all of the parties responsible for the melting pot of cultures that is now Cape Town.
Curious about her highly unusual pieces, as well as the complex meanings they carry, we chatted to Carla to learn more.
To start, please tell us more about yourself and your journey so far.
I started my career at the age of fourteen. I started making contemporary beaded jewellery and sold them on consignment in various shops around Cape Town. By the time I was eighteen my business included two employees and my mother had become my business partner. We were exporting to the USA and UK as well as designing fashion jewellery for several local fashion designers who participated in the Cape Town Fashion Week in 2006.
When I started studying my business went onto the backburner for a while. I started the BA Visual Arts (Jewellery Design and Metalsmithing) degree at the University of Stellenbosch. I graduated in 2011 and immediately applied for my masters degree in the same department. In 2012 I also embarked on an exchange program with the University of Amsterdam and simultaneously worked as an intern in the Galerie Louise Smit, a contemporary jewellery art gallery in Amsterdam. We participated in several art fairs, including Art Rotterdam, and Collect in London.
How did you first become interested in jewellery design?
My interest in jewellery design started as a hobby. I used to babysit the neighborhood kids quite a lot, and I used to give them beads to make jewellery with to keep them busy. When I was wondering what to study in matric, I saw the University of Stellenbosch’s stand at the Design Indaba. Their beautiful, ethereal and out-of-the-box jewellery design inspired me to apply.
Your pieces are very interesting in that they communicate something much more complex than one typically associates with jewellery. Tell us more about the collection you showcased at your masters degree exhibition.
In the field of contemporary jewellery art, one has the opportunity to work inside the sphere and context of jewellery design, but make artistic statements. Liesbeth den Besten, the author of ‘On Jewellery’ has a very apt description of the contemporary jewellery field:
“A person who is engaged in contemporary jewellery, like me, has to explain an awful lot. For instance, that you are not a maker…or that one can indeed be professionally involved with jewellery as an art historian, or that there exists another type of jewellery rather than the regular stuff most people wear. You have to explain that there are jewellers across the world, graduated from art academies, who create this other kind of jewellery. And how their work differs from commercial or precious jewellery because it is an artistic expression, and that its value is not determined on the material it is made of.”
My masters exhibition was titled ‘The Cuff and the Collar as a Contemporary Reinterpretation of Power and Oppression at the 17th Century Colonial Cape’. The pieces were intended to call into question those historical artifacts which ‘symbolised’ the power hierarchy between master and slave at the Cape. They were created as an amalgamation of the two aesthetics, and invoked a hybrid feeling that is characteristic of many Post-colonial Cape identities today.
The collar and the cuff are both adornment entities, so I had quite a lot of fun investigating the different aesthetics and merging them into a new one – my own.
Are there any themes that seem to re-occur in your work?
There is one theme that seems to have re-occurred throughout my work, and that is my investigation into my country/city and my own background.
In my undergraduate dissertation I investigated the relationship between the Dutch and the Khoi at the time of first colonisation at the Cape. For my masters I decided to investigate deeper into the other parties who were also responsible for the melting pot of cultures that is Cape Town. The slaves who came from all over the world to build the Cape as we know it today brought with them a wealth of knowledge and customs. Even the Afrikaans language originated as a way for the Dutch colonisers to speak to the slaves. Thus the language has many Malay and Portuguese traces.
My jewellery was intended to be read as such an occurrence. A hybrid product of the marginalised gaining and miniscule degree of power over those who oppress them.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
My inspiration comes from things I can identify with. Pieces of history that relate to me or my culture, or new materials that inspire me to create pieces with a contemporary feel. Taking a material to the furthest point it can be explored is something that the University of Stellenbosch’s Jewellery Department taught us. That is when innovation meets design.
I am very influenced by Dutch design. The level of design in the Netherlands is unlike anything else I have come across. Perhaps I am biased from when I lived there, but it was a favourite pass-time of mine to walk through the various design shops throughout Amsterdam.
What materials do you typically work with?
I am very comfortable working in metal. I have to push myself sometimes to explore other materials, and also to merge two elements – which can sometimes prove quite challenging. But it is the challenge that I find the most inspirational. Solving a problem in the studio is when I am at my happiest.
In my undergraduate work I worked a lot with copper and brass, and casting the metal. I also worked extensively with enamel, and experimented with the technique to an extent where I incorporated earth into the glass powder of the enamel and fired it. What emerged was a delightfully interesting aesthetic that worked perfectly with my theme of Dutch and Khoi.
In my masters degree I worked a lot with Chinese Dupion Silk, a material that was able to lend to my work a feeling of (contemporary) ‘authenticity’ of the original ‘ruff’ collars the Dutch used to wear. I also crocheted with steel wire to create tension between hard and soft.
Are there any materials, mediums or techniques that you would like to start exploring?
I would like to start exploring 3D printing as a technique. We already trained on CAD (Computer Assisted Design) at university, and it was one of my favourite areas, as it merges two of my favourite things: computers and design. I aim to fine tune my goldsmith skills to be able give a new take on traditional jewellery.
Take us through your process. Do you have any routines?
I have a few routines, the first is to get myself a Chai latté, then settle into my studio and start neatening up. I have to start fresh to get new ideas. A lot of my inspiration actually happens at the bench, within the problem-solving process.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is when a piece is done, and I can share it with a world. It is a bonus if that piece gets matched up with a buyer who falls in love with it. The best sale I’ve made to date was one where the client said she was going to put it up on a wall in her house. This was the biggest compliment to me, as I have struggled a lot in the past with the question: am I an artist? Or a designer? Hopefully I have achieved both successfully.
Alternately, what is the most challenging?
The most challenging is probably working with clients’ commissions. They have an idea of what they want, and what they are willing to budget for the piece, and it is up to you to find out exactly what that is, and to overcome their expectations.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans going forward?
I am working on a new collection involving a lot of chainmail, oxidized (blackened) silver, crocheted chain and garnets. I am very excited about it, especially because it is a less ‘political’ collection, and a bit more of just my aesthetic style. I decided I need a little break from the academically loaded collections for a little while. Although pretty soon another one will be brewing. I hope that my fellow graduates are also working hard on new collections, because I plan to open a contemporary Jewellery art gallery in Cape Town soon.
What could we expect to find you doing in your spare time?
In my spare time you will find me shredding up as many books as I possibly can on my Kindle, working in my vegetable garden, doing pilates, crocheting or Instagramming (not that that can be described as a hobby, but it is definitely a favourite pass time and inspiration source for me).