Life can quickly become so predictable and routine, I spend 10-12 hours each time I create my Rainbow Roundup’s of the most colorful home decor and art, and find my favorite part of creating those lists is the sheer joy of discovering something new for the very first time.
A few months ago I did a Rainbow Roundup for colorful baskets, as always I was conducting my search online when I stumbled upon Baskets of Africa, something about the baskets and company connected with me on such a deep level.
The unique beauty of the baskets, the culture behind them, the stories behind them, the colors behind them and the man behind the company working hard to share the breathtaking art form and deep rooted culture with the entire world!
As I scrolled through their website I found the most unique and colorful baskets I had ever seen in my life, best part was that they were not only gorgeous, but very much functional, affordable and fair trade! I just had to reach out and see if I couldn’t connect with the person behind it all and help to get the word out about this gem!
Cael is the man behind Baskets of Africa, his story is both humbling and beautiful, and the passion, dedication and excitement for spreading the work and stories behind the amazing craftsman and craftswomen of African that create these baskets he sells is infectious.
He was kind enough to take some time to do an interview with us and talk about how he came to sell African baskets and some fascinating facts behind the beautiful baskets they sell and their mission to support African artisans and give them a good financial foundation to support their families and communities.
If you’re looking to add vibrant, bold color to your home, but also want something that is functional, you HAVE to check to their baskets, they have the largest selection anywhere, with so many styles, colors, patterns and sizes!
The best part is that everything is fair trade and they offer free shipping worldwide for any order no minimum purchase. So go check out their website and find a basket that is not only functional and beautiful but has a powerful story and lots of love behind it.
1. Where did you grow up and how did you get first get interested in African Baskets?
I grew up in Northern California, Oregon, and Hawaii. When I was 19 (In 1991) I started working for an African Art gallery (because they needed someone that knew how to type!) That ended up being serendipitous as it led me on a series of adventures managing large scale museum exhibits, writing art gallery software and websites, and traveling to Africa to source artwork and crafts.
This is where I was first introduced to African basketry and that led me to start up Baskets of Africa in 2002.
2. What does it mean that your company is Fair Trade and why is it important to you?
Fair Trade is a movement to do business in a fair way in the developing world. Rather than looking for ways to exploit people in emerging markets, we do the opposite, we look for ways to support people and lift them up out of extreme poverty by treating them fairly and paying them a sustainable living wage for their work. In this case their amazing basketry!
We have been members for 17 years of the Fair Trade Federation, the US body for verification of Fair Trade crafts.
3. What are the different types of baskets you sell and where are they made?
We are now working with dozens of basket weaving groups in more than 15 countries in Africa. Each country, culture, or people have unique types of baskets that I seek out, so the baskets reflect that diversity.
Developing the highest quality available is always a priority for us as well. So when I travel in Africa, I’m looking primarily for women’s basket weaving co-ops that are doing something unique to their culture and with potential to develop in the highest possible quality.
By paying the weavers more than other buyers do, they sell us their best quality baskets. In some cases, this has resulted in a revitalization of age old basket weaving traditions by giving people economic opportunities to weave baskets from their homes to earn a sustainable living wage.
4. Which basket styles are your favorite and why?
That’s kind of like asking which of my children is my favorite – ha ha! I’m excited by each different type of basket and the story and people behind them, and the opportunity I have to help those people support their children and families through the weaving and sale of their baskets.
So my ‘favorites’ are always changing but right now there is a small basket weaving co-op in Southern Uganda that are creating some of the highest quality baskets in the world today.
They are called Rwenzori baskets and they are not only perfectly coil stitched, which is one of the most difficult types of weaving, but they make all their own natural vegetable dyes from things like indigo plant and marigold flower petals.
5. What are some great ways people can use baskets in their homes for decorating and organizing?
Baskets have literally infinite uses in organization and decorating. They are both beautiful and functional!
One trend we have seen in recent years which is just fantastic, is hanging groups of baskets on a wall to create your own piece of art by choosing complementary baskets and hanging them in your own unique groupings to match your style. It is a relatively inexpensive way to cover a wall in an incredibly unique manner.
We also have lots of baskets for carrying to market, shopping, or as purses which are used primarily for function and fashion. Then we have heirloom quality baskets which people will often display in collections or groupings on shelves, or maybe on top of kitchen cabinetry. And then there are great little baskets you can use for holding rings, wallets and pocket change and key, organizing your desktop, and so much more.
6. What made you want to get into selling baskets? What has kept you doing it?
I grew up very poor, even to the point of living in a tent, bread truck, small boat, small trailer, one room log cabin with no running water or electricity, and many more interesting places.
When I first went to Africa in my 20’s, it was the first time I really realized that there are continents of people that live in those types of difficult conditions. I really empathize with them and their situations since I have experienced living like that myself.
I wanted to do something to give people living rural lives, mostly subsistence farmers, some opportunities to help pay for their children’s education, to be able to buy food if their crops fail, and to provide medical care.
Eventually I settled on baskets because I knew that across Africa, there were many people that still weave baskets and I wanted to encourage them to preserve that part of their culture and heritage while simultaneously providing this economic opportunity. I communicate with the weavers in Africa every day now and that keeps me motivated to keep going.
7. What type of decor do you have in your home? What colors do you use and styles of decor do you like?
When I first got married, all of our decor was African from my trips and I would bring home more and more things from Africa to decorate with. Lots of brightly colored textiles (my favorite color is purple), paintings, wood carvings, stone carvings and of course baskets. My wife and I painted our house with each room a different subdued color – yellows, blues, greens, reds.
At one point in our house you could stand there and see 4 different colors on the walls from one vantage point, and it looked wonderful and worked great! It’s all about selecting the right shades and making sure the colors are ‘clear’ and not ‘muddy’ but also aren’t too bright. I credit my wife with choosing those colors perfectly.
Then as the years passed, my wife inherited more and more art and furniture from her family. She is from Taos, New Mexico and was born in Santa Fe. So we ended up shifting our decor to Southwestern, Northern New Mexico style in particular. It’s more subdued, warm, earthy tones in our home now with lots of handmade items.
8. Name 3 artists or crafters that your are interested in and inspire you?
Well, 2 years ago I took up basket weaving myself. And it seems I took to it like a duck to water because some of the baskets I’ve woven have been juried into 2 exhibits, including one with the National Basketry Organization that is currently running at the Kentucky Art Museum.
So in the last couple of years, I have really ramped up my interest in modern basketry and have really been delving into learning as many techniques as I can.
Now when I travel to Africa, I also sit with the weavers and work with them a bit and learn some of their tricks and tips that they use in their basket making.
So the 3 artists that inspire me the most are, predictably, basket weavers. Lois Russell, Kari Lonning, and Tanabe Chikuunsai IV. These are 3 very different kinds of basket weaving artists and I encourage everyone to search them on the internet to see their spectacular creations. Of course I could list 10 more too, but these 3 were the first to come to mind and I’d say I probably think about their work on just about a daily basis.
9. What advice would you offer to someone who was buying an African basket for the first time but didn’t know which one to purchase?
I think the first step is to think about what you want to use it for – Home Decor, Collecting Unique Basketry, Storage or other Utility, Fashion or Baskets to carry. From there you can narrow down to the incredible variety we offer.
We have over 2,500 baskets from Africa on our website and almost all of them are individually photographed so what you see is what you get. No surprises when you open your box.
You can take out the basket, the one from the photo on our website, and put it straight to use. We offer a unique experience by first offering the largest selection of African baskets, which are also of the highest quality, and are also Fair Trade and supporting people in villages in Africa.
10. Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like to share?
One question we commonly receive is “what type of machines are used to make these baskets”. It’s an easy answer, “None”.
There is actually no machine, no robot, no way to weave a basket except by hand. I’d also like to thank you for your time and effort to help get the word out about these amazing weavers in Africa and their fantastic, creative baskets. Each basket we sell allows us to buy another in Africa and support more weavers and their families!