A highly optimistic and visionary creative entrepreneur who is currently a postgraduate student of Arts Administration and Cultural Management. She seeks to contribute in organizational development of art institutions to ensure they add social and economic value. Having founded and run a crafts company for two years, she believes in the power of creative enterprises run by young people to cause lasting change in society. On a bright day, you’ll find her skygazing at the sunset with a wide smile. On a chilly day you’ll find her journaling with a cup of tea in hand or having a hearty talk with a friend.
MultiplicityTO: What led you to becoming a craftsperson? Were you artistically involved when you were in Kenya?
Sharon Zarita: When I finished high school, I didn't have anything to do. What happens in Kenya is that you finish high school, then you go to university and there’s a whole selection period where you must choose. I finished in November. February came, and I still didn’t have anything to do. I was very active in church – I had asked my mom to get me some manila paper, and then I’d make small bookmarks for the church. Then, when I started going to campus, I started making birthday cards for people and for my friends. But then after school – I went to school for media but I realized I did not want to pursue media – I began to set up the business. Though in high school, I was always a craftsperson. I went to boarding school, so people knew I could make cards for everything. I used to be a card collector. But then I noticed that the cards in the stores were blank - they had never done anything new and fresh – so there was a need. So, I started making my own.
MTO: Can you share with us something you liked to craft in Kenya – outside of your business and just for yourself?
SZ: I like to collect memories. My friend was leaving to go to the states and there was nothing I could put together that would show how long we knew each other for, so I decided I would pull out pictures of us and crafted a memory journal for her to bring to America. So anything with emotional attachment and that can be crafted is something I can definitely do for myself and for my friends. Although, I am a lazy crafter, so anything that takes time – like knitting or crocheting – I can’t do. I know how to, but I don’t invest as much. So anything that involves paper, memories, and has an emotional attachment – I can do that. Also I use boxes. Something that I used to work on was for mothers who had miscarriages – we would made make memory boxes after the baby had passed, and they could put things in it to remember to the baby. Anything with an emotional attachment, I love to take that on personally.
MTO: In terms of visuals, where do you draw your inspirations for patterns, colours, and overall form? What’s your creative process like?
SZ: That’s interesting because before the business, my friend had asked the same question. But I don’t have one. It’s informed by the recipient – I create based on the type of person they may be. So if it were someone who loved nature, the craft would reflect on nature. It’s very much on the person to show who they truly are.
I worked mostly with weddings and wedding plans. So I did a lot of greeting cards for the bride and groom. For the people who are seeing these cards, it’s a perception of them [the couple] before the wedding. It’s always about the recipient for me.
"I realized there are more problems in the world, and that the arts in general can have a solution for these problems."
MTO: You fused a love for crafts and an understanding for educational needs to create Tengeza. Can you tell us more about this endeavor?
ZA: Tengeza is a craft program for deaf children, it could be used for educational purposes but it’s mainly used for those in disadvantaged communities. Deaf children and other people with disabilities are often not in school, so its purpose is for these communities. How I got involved is that I really liked to be listened to (so thank you for giving me your the time), and the deaf community never got to chance to be listened to. For me, being deaf is not a disability, there’s just a language barrier. So if we try to engage creativity in these children then we give them a platform of expression, and that is why I began Tengeza. And so just like many other children coming from disadvantaged communities, they think nothing good can out of them. But giving them a chance is a real opportunity for them and myself. For example, when giving a child some beads and they are able to make something, and they cannot believe they are able to make it, it’s showing the child that there’s more to them. To spark creativity at such an early age, and show that they are able to work with their hands and create something means that later on in life they can pursue it, whether it’s for leisure or not. I’m actually sad to have left it behind, as people were asking me if someone was going to keep up this program and I did not have a proper answer for them, but hopefully in the future something good comes out of it.
MTO: What does “Tengeza” mean?
ZA: It means “to make”. It is the Swahili verb meaning "to make something".
MTO: Reaching the half point in the Humber Arts Administration and Cultural Management Program, how have your goals and aims for arts and arts education shifted?
ZA: I came here for mentor ship, as I was saying earlier, there are a lot of creative people in Kenya but not on a professional scale. I came to this program looking for mentor ship so I can create a livelihood out of my art. But it has been so hard to integrate into the creative communities here – so hard to engage – and then I realized that every community is facing a social issue. We have a lot of tribe issues in Kenya, especially during elections, and here the social issues span from race to religion and newcomers. I realized, generally there needs to be social cohesion, and I am interested in integrating this social cohesion within the arts. So I am hoping that my craft business could one day take part in this, because nothing in the world will change if this does not happen. Instead of an arts service organization, it could be a crafts service organization. No one will know the difference in Kenya because there are not ASO's or services like that, so it’s really about finding my place in society or in all of these societies.
MTO: What was the transition like when you decided you want to make Suza Crafts a business out of your passion?
ZA: It was scary and hard. I graduated in 2015 and media in Kenya is prestigious – everyone wants to be on TV or the radio. But as my friends were assuming these positions, I was not; so everyone in the community was wondering why I had not pursued these positions. I went to my mom for advice about this, she’s a risk-taker just like me, so I went to her and told her that I wanted to set up the business, and she was really receptive. So for me, if my mom says yes, then I have no problems but if she says no, then there are always going to be problems. The problem for me is that I had no backup plan if I failed. So because she had said yes, the transition itself was going to be hard because I had no business plan, only the craft and the desire to get something out of it. But I knew I had an end-goal that I wanted to reach, and taking it step-by-step would put forth this business. I came from having planned nothing into something.
MTO: Is there a difference between how Western society perceives craft than how Kenyan culture perceives craft?
ZA: For us, it’s all about handmade things, not only with crafts but art in general. For an art exhibition, most people bring their handmade arts and crafts. Where here [in Canada] it’s a lot of visual expectations. Even for craft, which I haven’t explored much here yet, the emphasis seems to be on the visual, and it has an artistic alignment to it. But for us in Kenya, anything handmade or homemade is considered art. I’m not the best at interpreting artwork but it seems here that people like craft that is aesthetically pleasing, whereas in Kenya, we perceive craft as functional and emotionally meaningful by hand making craft items like pottery – so less aesthetic and more functional use.
MTO: How did your community react when you started your craft business?
ZA: I’ll talk about my two communities. The people in my home circle community were really supportive – I actually did not have any money when I started and I had a mini fundraiser for the start of it. I had asked to borrow a small amount of funds and would return it in a few months. Some of the people from my circle had put in their money to support me and the
business, meaning they would be potential stakeholders and buyers in the business. Apart from that, these people in my circle are my champions and cheerleaders. They were really supportive.
But the outside community, the perception of being an artist in Kenya is not at a place where it is seen as an actual profession, so it was really really hard to understand why someone with a university degree would want to be an artist or start a crafting business. What I decided to was to block my ears of people who could not support this and continued my pursuit with those who could support this idea of crafting as a real job. Because crafting is not as popular in Kenya (the performing arts are a more popular discipline) I created a space for crafting. I mentored other girls to pursue this, where you could actually put your work out there, and actually make a living out of it.
MTO: We describe multiplicity as living, working, or being in more than one form. We seek to transgress boundaries, and especially with our focus being centered on the city of Toronto and those who inhabit. How do you relate to the theme of multiplicity as an artist but also a newcomer to the city of Toronto? Do you find the city has influenced or even changed how you think artistically or create?
ZA: When I got here I really saw that the people are different, the culture is different. I never travelled out of Kenya, I was used to being the majority, being in my community and in a safe space. Now, it’s completely different and the systems are different. All these people have influences over me, in what I want with my business, my artistic knowledge and practice. Everything has to be influenced by something or someone. I realized there are more problems in the world, and that the arts in general can have a solution for these problems. I’m really glad that coming here has opened my eyes to this new system, not because this city has not helped me to integrate but because the city paints a picture that is out of my narrow-minded perspective because I had previously seen the world through one viewpoint.
MTO: So either than finishing the program, what are you working on right now? Or would like to be working on (business related or not)?
ZA: If I had money, the thing I would set up would be an affordable hair salon for natural or black hair. It’s been so hard to find one and it is so hard to manage my hair in this winter. So if there’s one thing I’m really thinking about it, it’s that – and that it should be affordable. I don’t want to be paying $200 for something I know is really simple. So most of these things I’m thinking about, are things that are beyond my reach right now. I’m just keeping these ideas for a later time. I also would like to visit all the provinces in Canada, at least for the time that I’m here.
MTO: The last time I had interviewed you, you mentioned ‘the different Zaritas’ do you feel that your identity has changed or shifted while being here?
ZA: Yeah, I’ve learned so many new things about myself. I came from a community where I was loved and accepted and cheered on, a very supportive community. And now, I had to begin again – where nobody knows you, nobody knows how good you are. I struggled with trying to prove myself, it was hard in the beginning but now I’ve allowed myself to not try to prove anything and to allow others to experience me as just me. I’ve written down an actual list of what I know about myself – Zarita – just so I don’t forget. It seems to be easier just to try and fit in, but knowing myself helps me to be a better person.