SANTA FE, N.M. — While the other kids played cowboys and Indians, David Arment dreamed of Africa.
The Santa Fe- and Dallas-based marketing executive remembers heading to the school library while his classmates ate lunch.
“I would go to the library and the National Geographic photography books about Africa,” he said in a telephone interview from Dallas. “It was the jungle and the savannah and all the animals that I found fascinating.”
In 1992, he realized his dream and flew to South Africa. “From my first trip over there, I knew this was my place,” he said.
Arment discovered a passion that became an avocation. Today he is considered one of the world’s experts on Zulu telephone wire baskets.
Zulu basket makers will be bringing their vibrant vessels to this weekend’s Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. The weavers will join more than 150 artists from across the globe offering beaded jewelry from Kenya, French ceramics, Mali indigo and baskets from Rwanda, among a multitude of folk art. More than 40 percent of this year’s artists are new to the color and chaos of the Museum Hill celebration, including artisans from Hungary, South Sudan, Uganda and Vanuatu.
When Arment visited South Africa, he stumbled onto brochures trumpeting the colorful Zulu baskets woven from telephone wire. But the shop that had advertised the vessels was sold out.
“It put this seed in my heart,” he said.
At a Johannesburg market in 1992, he saw his first Zulu telephone wire basket, made of tightly-woven recycled wire coated in brilliant, zig-zagging hues of greens, blues and reds. Over the next decade, Arment – who creates art collections for luxury hotels across the globe, including the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton and Encantado – began noticing the Zulu baskets in New York, Paris and Dallas.
Ultimately, serendipity led him to the woman who helped spearhead a Zulu basket cooperative, Marisa Fick-Jordaan, and he traveled with her to Durban to meet the artists and learn more.
The pair wrote the definitive book “Wired: Contemporary Zulu Telephone Wire Baskets” in 2005.
Master weavers Elliott Mkhize and Nomvuselelo Mavundla will be at this weekend’s market.
The Santa Fe event has become one of the best in the world to collect the baskets, Arment said. Today, Hallmark sells ornaments made like them. Arment has placed them in hotels from the Ritz-Carlson in Tuscon to a St. Martin resort and in Oprah Winfrey’s school for girls. He’s seen them in both London and Paris.
“Christian Dior sells them in his shop today,” he said.
Oh, and Arment has collected “several thousand” for his homes.
Weavers initially made the baskets using telephone wire stripped to reveal its colorful interior. Now the artists buy the copper wire from dealers who manufacture it specifically for their use. An attempt to use less-expensive metals – aluminum, for instance – fizzled because they weren’t strong enough.
It all started in Durban when two weavers were working as security guards. Bored, they picked some wire and wove coverings for black pots used for brewing the South African version of beer.
“We would call it kind of an alcoholic yogurt,” Arment said.
Fick-Jordaan ran a shop in the nearby harbor. The weavers showed her their pot covers; she asked for something bigger.
“Then it just caught on like wildfire,” Arment said.
The weavers create baskets of colorful geometric shapes that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Others incorporate figures or animals. They sell for $15 to upwards of $4,000, depending on size and complexity.
Many of the artists reserve their best work for Santa Fe, Arment said. Americans appreciate the artistry, partly because of a familiarity with Native American baskets.
At home, Arment rotates his baskets, switching them from a storage area to his Dallas and Santa Fe homes. Some he holds especially dear, like those made by the late Vincent Sithole, who became a friend. Basket sales allowed him to buy a farm. He died last winter of tuberculosis.
“The more people hear about this, the more people are going to be able to feed their familes,” said Arment, who first visited South Africa during the dwindling of apartheid.
“Today they’re living in houses,” he said. “They were living in shacks they had built themselves. They have electricity. They have running water. You can’t imagine what the folk art market has done.”