Jewelry Designer Githan Coopoo Makes Vulnerability In Vogue
SS: How did your line get started?
GC: It’s something I started professionally last year; my friend Rich Mnisi asked me to make a capsule collection for his men’s runway show, because I used to wear earrings all the time. It was well-received so I started producing and its taken on a life of its own since then. But it’s not very entrepreneurial, actually, because I don’t have the time to sell them. I get mails from people every day who want to buy them, but I don’t have the infrastructure to do it at the moment.
SS: Had you been working with ceramic before?
GC: I taught myself how to make cups and bowls and things when I was younger, like a real country mom, and then I basically decided to do that one day for jewelry. I love working with the clay; I love that it’s a really emotive material. I love that I can’t physically make the same pair of earrings twice, even if I tried, because the clay really does it’s own thing. I love that it’s a universal medium, that it’s just earth. It’s inexpensive and humble and mundane and then you elevate it with style. I really like that about the material.
SS: What influences your style? Do you have any particular references?
GC: For the first collection I did I was really influenced by broken materials and rocks and bits of concrete that I found on the side of the road. I walk everywhere in Cape Town, I don’t have a driver’s license, and there’s bits of debris and rubbish and rocks and hard things from construction sites that have paint on them. I love those organic shapes and I try to convert them into ceramic by just cleaning up the edges and making them a little more two-dimensional. I love this idea of a found object, an urban artifact, something that’s been left like a relic with a previous existence. I love Greek myth and that kind of thing, so that notion of using the clay and making something inspired by a previous time was a big part of it. And then visually the shapes and things, I just really loved the notion of minimalism and simplicity, but then also something that’s completely opulent and ornamental.
SS: I think that’s what I respond to in the work is that you really straddle that line—the materiality of the object is very evident, but then there’s this otherworldliness that you bring to it. What does your creative process look like, to bring these abstract artifacts to life as jewelry?
GC: Part of the reason this hasn’t been a lucrative business is that I make all of the earrings by hand. So each piece is completely bespoke and individual and labor-intensive. I sculpt them and then fire them, then they go through a process of sanding, which is kind of my favorite part of the process because it’s when you get to see the final product take shape. That’s where I do a lot of the refining of the forms and the designs and it becomes its own thing. And then I do the glazing and spraying myself as well. All done by hand in one go. The object reference is much more like intellectual property [in that regard], just something I’ve considered. I really let the clay dictate what happens; there’s an element of chance in how the shapes form themselves.
SS: Tell me a little bit more about the urbanity of the project, and how being in the city impacts the work you’re doing.
GC: When I was at university I developed the habit of walking around campus to find bits of metal, often broken bits of lighters, you know, maybe she’s a syringe, I don’t know. Then I’d disinfect them overnight in coke or something and turn them into earrings. My friends used to joke that I would put anything in my ears because I literally would. I had my own little rock rebellion phase when I was 19; my hair was white. And then I started making my own work and I incorporated the clay. It all happened very naturally. I went back to the same reference of the ground and the streets that I walk around; I think it’s really important to be porous to the world and I think that’s something that my jewelry really channels, this idea of being sensitive and being fragile and using that as a power. Being jaded and being hard is something I’ve really struggled to avoid, especially at times when I’m heartbroken and boys have really fucked me over, or I’ve fucked my own self over and I hate myself for being so emotional and so romantic. You kind of learn that sensitivity is good and that that is your power.
SS: As a queer person in Cape Town, is that a big part of your work—to make space for vulnerability? To be seen as representative of these values?
GC: I have some of the most incredible individuals in my immediate community, all really smart, all really brave, and I think I’m just joining that narrative. I think it’s really important to have substance and authenticity behind what you’re doing and what you’re putting out. I try to do that with my brand, to create something that says more and has more of a poeticism to it. [So] I think it’s challenging a lot of societal norms, as does what we do collectively in South Africa and Cape Town, especially as queer individuals of color. I’m speaking specifically about the queer community though. I think there’s a big difference between the gay and the queer community in South Africa.
SS: What does that look like?
GC: The gay community is not inclusive. It’s really classist and racist and elitist. There is so much hatred and alienation within the gay community in South Africa, it’s really heartbreaking. Gay clubs are not safe spaces, they’re really dehumanizing spaces; Grindr is a really dehumanizing digital space.
SS: I wonder if that’s just anywhere where gayness and maleness intersect in a vacuum, away from queerness. The sameness and maleness get amplified and it starts to be really reductive.
GC: It’s just this notion of having an ideal, really. You can boil it down to that. It’s a very prevalent thing to have a gay ideal in South Africa and that gay ideal is generally masculine and white. People are just very much othered, purely on visual standards. I don’t even want to get into a discussion on femme culture in this country, it’s painful. But there are incredible queer individuals and artists that I’m proud to call my friends, so, there’s that.
SS: What are some of the next steps for you with this project?
GC: I’d like more people to be able to engage with the product, whatever that might look like. And I’d like it to be celebrated in the sense that it makes people feel strong for being emotional and sensitive and not being hard. More than anything that. If it just made anyone feel like they could.
SS: How do you see yourself affecting that change?
GC: I think very simply it’s just about being proud of yourself, representing yourself and not giving up. Which is one of the hardest things in the world to do. [But] if you give up then nothing will change. You just need to keep on producing if you believe in something.—