From her photos online, Theresia Kyalo possesses a piercing, quirky charm. In-person, the jeweller is refined and collected. The young multidisciplinary artist is a fixture on the scene of what one might call elite African art.
Last month, the jewellery designer was signed by American singer and songwriter Beyoncé Knowles on the pop artist’s directory of Black Owned Businesses. What this nod means is that she will have increased visibility. It also lends credibility to her artwork in the global market of contemporary jewellery.
Now she is sitting in front of me wearing as much unassuming calm as makeup, occasionally glancing at her phone as any 24-year-old would.
I ask her what it is like for her work to be recognised by Beyoncé. What does this deal mean to her brand?
“I was excited,” she responds animatedly, “but I think people close to me were happier for me than I was for myself. It’s yet to dawn on me just how big this deal is. Not everyone gets their business listed on the directory.”
“This boost means that my brand will grow to the next level. Given how the pandemic has affected businesses, this was the best news to me.”
Theresia comes off as plucky with twice the amount of foresight. From her Instagram bio that reads “metal works and line drawing”, one is tempted to imagine she is an artisan. Eclectic to the core, she often experiments with different materials, ranging from metal to textiles and recently glass and ceramics. Before she is a jeweller, she is a line artist.
“It’s from these lines that I started making pieces that imitated the drawings. After some time, I wasn’t happy with just line drawings. I wanted a medium that would give tangibility to my lines.”
Brass does it for her. When she started, she needed an artisan to teach her craftsmanship in brass.
“I took long to get things in motion since most of the artisans I approached couldn’t comprehend my concept,” she says.
She has since found an artisan, and after sketching out designs of various creations, spurred on by her everyday experiences, the artisan fabricates them into jewellery.
When I ask her about her place within the community of artists, Theresia confidently replies that she has carved her own space, where she isn’t obliged to conform.
“Most artists tend to make designs that people are familiar with. We always want earrings and necklaces to look a certain way. It needs not to be that way.”
Quite rightly, her work heavily features pieces that are nearly as hard to discern as they’re to find elsewhere. I’m curious to know how this bears on her brand.
“I create first to fulfil my artistic self before thinking about sales. Often, people ask me where and how to wear some of the pieces. I attend to those who understand what I’m trying to do and those who don’t,” she says.
Among her leading creations, a hybrid of modern and traditional African jewellery, include Utosi headpiece, Kinga Pua nose bridge, Mdomo Kipande lip piece and Saba Pete ring. The pieces retail for Sh7,000 for an earpiece to Sh35,000 for the headpiece.
“I’m not looking to sell to everybody,” she notes with a fiery punch of self-belief.
“In niche business, there’s always someone who’ll appreciate what you’re trying to do and buy from you.”
She sells these on her Instagram page and on Ditto Africa, an online marketplace that features products from a curated community of African and African diaspora brands.
On who the primary target is, Theresa notes that her pieces are non-binary. “They can be worn by either gender for a fantastic look. The pieces work well for people who aren’t fixated about gender: those with a different eye.” They can also be used to style the cast for theatre or TV productions, or during festivals.
“Not long ago, it was a taboo for a man to wear earrings. This mind-set is shifting. We aren’t where we ought to be, but we aren’t where we were 20 years ago.”
She observes that even artists themselves are becoming more accommodating to emergent forms of art.
For a maker of such innovative pieces, what is her style and what type of jewellery does she wear? Theresia is a minimalist who prefers a simple dress code and even far less jewellery.
On the day I’m met her, she was in denim pants paired with an inconspicuous brown sweater and flat shoes, subtly accessorised with an almost unnoticeable black pouch.
“I don’t bling out all the time. If I’m wearing something, it has to accentuate my face. Occasionally I buy jewellery at Maasai Market,” she says.
I ask her what Covid-19 has taught her about humanity. “If anything, I’ve learnt about perseverance. People, including myself and my friends, have had to stop thinking about business and just focus on survival.”
She only resumed work recently after a long break. “I just wasn’t in the right mental space to work. I realised how privileged I am because not so many people would decide not to work and still be able to fend for their families during this time.”
This lull has been a time of reflection for her “in terms of the trajectory I want my brand to take” while evaluating whether her products are “suitable for the market given the prevailing circumstances.”
“I’ve been designing and thinking about different elements that I’d incorporate in my brand as an expansion plan. I’m keen on working with different mediums and to stretch my concepts for maximum results.”
But it’s also the current crisis that anchored her on the current path. At the height of the “Black Lives Matter” campaign that escalated during the global lockdown, Black Owned Businesses Directory weighed in and singled out enterprises owned by blacks around the world to showcase their creativity and innovativeness.
“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I probably wouldn’t have been so lucky. I also wouldn’t have taken time to reflect on my business holistically as I have. Despite the negative atmosphere around the world, there have been positives too.”
So, what strikes her about Beyoncé? Theresia chuckles. “I’m inspired by her business acumen, which most people don’t notice. How she is stuck with her practice is admirable. Whichever line of work you’re in, longevity is key, which is why most people look up to her.”
More often than not, society frowns upon strong women and even erroneously labels them feminists. It’s a touchy subject that often divides than it unites. Her views?
“We need strong women who can articulate various issues. It’s encouraging that we’ve embraced women in business and the corporate space and those occupying positions of power. We’re at a better place.”
For her, the biggest test of the society’s honesty is not simply to lobby for women leadership but its readiness to fully support women already holding such positions.
Ironically, Theresia refers to young people and their behaviour as though she is not one herself. While eloquent, she punctuates her speech with deliberate interludes characteristic of millennials, talking playfully if giggly, but barely mincing her words.
She laments that sometimes clients assume she is aloof “when in reality I’ve a lot of work to do” especially since “I don’t have a team yet.”
When she enrolled for a law degree at Riara University, she’d hoped to become a diplomat. This desire would fall by the wayside when art came into the picture. Would she have a foot in both worlds? Her response is almost curt ‘no’.
“I thrive better as a creative,” she explains. “Law wouldn’t offer me the kind of freedom that I enjoy in art. This is what I like.”
I remind her that she is only 24, with a long life ahead of her, and possible changes of heart.
“I’m still figuring it out. Nothing is fixed. It’s interesting to be in this stage where I can experiment. Jewellery is what’s working out for me right now. I could wake up tomorrow and decide to go to the corporate world.”
She could also decide to go back to school to “study something different that tickles my fancy such as culinary arts to become a chef.”
Theresia is also an active participant in local art workshops. “It fascinates me to watch people practice their crafts and to learn different things. It’s interesting to juxtapose a work and the artist behind it.”
Her biggest weakness, she tells me, is anxiety. When she started, she constantly worried about how to sustain her career path. Three years later, she is not only chancy but also believes that “you can’t prevent events that must happen from happening.”
This though hasn’t stopped her from obsessing over what life will be like after Covid-19. “Will I have to change my business model? What does the new normal mean for me and my brand?” Her more urgent question though is how to raise money for expansion.
“Sometimes we don’t realise that artists need money to create. I need a workshop, for instance, and to equip it, which would cost a lot of money. Thus far, I haven’t factored in the cost of buying textiles and ceramics.”
Thinking about capital is frustrating, she admits, adding, however, that this doesn’t cloud her drive. “I’ve had to keep pushing with the little I have. If you worried about lack of funds, you’d never do anything.”
She argues that many young people would do a lot of great things with support from family, friends, and the government. “Everything has a start, and for an artist, it’s the means to create,” Theresia says.