Customised Air Jordan sneakers, valued at more than half a million dollars, unveiled at South Africa Pavilion

But today, there are less than 50 masons who practise this craft. It's difficult to do; you need to exercise patience

  

DUBAI – Seven years ago, South African shoe start-up Ayashisa Amateki, which specialises in customising sneakers, commissioned 85-year-old South African contemporary artist Esther Mahlangu to transform a pair of Air Jordans. Her creations, estimated to be worth around USD560,000 were unveiled at the South Africa Pavilion at Expo 2020 this week.

Known for her bold, large-scale paintings, referencing her Ndebele heritage, Mahlangu is the first South African to have her artwork displayed on a customised Rolls-Royce Phantom. She can also count celebrities Usher, Alicia Keys, John Legend and Oprah Winfrey among her collectors.

But her aim is to preserve African traditions and culture in the face of globalisation, including the practice of painting with chicken feathers. She is also a fan of cultural collaborations.

Prince Mthethwa, a Mahlangu fanatic, founded the Ayashisa Amateki studio in 2006. He said: “The climate in the Ndebele region, where Mahlangu is from, produces the best free-range chickens, so that’s where the best brushes are from. But today, there are less than 50 masons who practise this craft. It’s difficult to do; you need to exercise patience.”

“Painting with chicken feathers is a very niche craft, and one that is aimed at consumers who are looking for masterpieces,” says Mthethwa. The interest is there, he insists, especially in countries like Japan and China.

His studio’s collaboration with Mahlangu has certainly drawn attention. He added: “Everyone wants to see the shoes. They want to see the video of Mahlangu working, her feather brushes and the end result.”

The sneakers are all set to embarkon a world tour. “If Elon Musk wants to take them to Mars, that’s exactly where they’re going,” says Mthethwa. “We’re starting with showcases at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, followed by London, and then the Brooklyn Museum in New York. We’ll return to the UAE to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.”

For now, Mthethwa enthuses, the sneakers will be right at home at Expo 2020 Dubai. “We are at Expo 2020, and what a platform this is! The whole world is here,” he says.

Demonstrating the art of hand-painting and sneaker customisation, Expo 2020’s South Africa Pavilion currently has 11 different artist-enhanced designs on display, reflecting the 11 official languages practised by the country’s diverse population: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swazi, Venda and Tsonga.

According to one of the artists, Thato Kokwana, the rise of sneaker culture is unstoppable, which is why collaborations like this are so significant. He said: “Millennials and Gen Z have a connection with sneakers. When you walk down the street, or when someone starts talking to you, they automatically look at your shoes!”

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