How Avana Africa is helping African Artisans Sculpt Luxury Decor in Cote d’Ivoire and Bring it to the Americas

Avana Africa is a social enterprise based in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. This emerging luxury brand is adding value to authentic traditional craftsmanship by training local artisans to enhance designs and finishes that create signature designs for contemporary interiors. During their US launch event in Malibu, California, I sat down with Avana Africa’s CEO, Vandana Sharad, and one of the company’s master sculptors, Emmanuel Kouame, to ask them about how Avana creates luxury decor in Cote d’Ivoire and brings it to the Americas.

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Metallic Grey Baby Giraffe contemporary floor decor from social enterprise Avana Africa.

What is especially astonishing about Avana Africa’s master sculptors is that they craft monoxylous pieces, meaning each piece is hand-carved from one solid piece of wood. That is easy to wrap the mind around when you’re beholding a lamp or small mask. When you see the craftsmanship of a chateau door endowed from top to bottom with traditional Ivorian motifs, the enormity of skill is awe-inspiring. You know that not only was this piece handcrafted but also that this is literally only one piece of solid wood that isn’t glued or nailed together. This level of skill is a testament to the artisanal assets that are inherent to Cote d’Ivoire. Perhaps that is why Avana Africa has officially partnered with the Ministry of Commerce, Crafts and Promotion of SMEs for The Republic of Cote d’Ivoire.

While several of their furnishings node to ancestry of its Ivorian sculptors, not all of Avana Africa’s pieces are traditional. Mr. Kouame, in particular, is noted for his contemporary designs which honor the Ivorian tradition of sculpting but plays with new forms that transcend heritage.

Q: Vandana, what inspired you to form Avana Africa as a social enterprise?

I moved to Cote d’Ivoire from India in 2013, a couple of years after a civil war when the country was still recuperating and local businesses were still struggling to get back on their feet. Though data showed 40% of the country’s population was engaged in artisanal activities, promoting artisanal activities was secondary to rebuilding and survival efforts of the government. Artisans were struggling and evidently, progeny was searching for better and higher paying means of income. At that time, I met a few artisans who would have spent months to create their wares, but would sell them for peanuts to get immediate money. Though there was a desperation, suffering, hurt and despair, what actually got me to form my social enterprise was the spark in some of these artisans to continue their art despite all odds and their willingness to transform and adapt as per the times.

Q: What inspires the designs of your master sculptors?

UTILITY is the magic word! Avana’s design team works with the master sculptors to create designs that reflect a blend of authentic traditional forms along with modern contemporary utilitarian objects. All designs worked upon by our sculptors are researched beforehand and we ensure that anything we create must blend in with the times.

Avana’s sculptors are often creating their pieces from one solid piece of wood. How time intensive is the process of making a piece?

Depending on the size and complexity of the design and the choice/density of the wood, sculpting time could vary anywhere between 2 weeks to 3 months. While smaller pieces with a dimension of around 2 to 3 feet might get done in 2-3 weeks, bigger pieces like furniture and statues might run into 2 to 3 months.

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Clockwise: Consul Honoraire of The Republic of Cote d’Ivoire Dr. Zaho admiring a massive, hand-carved dining table from Avana Africa; carved wooden stool; modernized traditional Ivorian statue, Vandana Sharad with Joy Donnell. Photos taken at Creative Visions in Malibu.

Q: What makes Avana’s pieces so luxurious?

Each piece of Avana takes you through a journey of an entire civilization. A piece like this in a modern Western house can probably be the only connect that children of the household would have with history and the richness of an entire civilization that they never got to see.

The story of each piece is not a mere selling point, but much more than “just a story.” It is the truth, that I myself research well enough with help from the National Museum of Cote d’Ivoire before developing a design. These pieces are carved 100% by hand and have never used any modern machinery. Every piece is carved by a sculptor, who is himself as invaluable as the art as he is himself a part of history and tradition. The exclusivity and uniqueness of each piece makes these pieces worth the possession of connoisseurs.

Q: How is Avana contributing to contemporary African design and luxury?

Avana is educating and training artisans to create better products in terms of designs and finishes, thus, enabling contemporary African interior design market to grow. When we add utility to a traditional design form, e.g., transforming a statue or a mask into a table lamp, it facilitates acceptability of traditional design in a contemporary household. Thus, we are not targeting art enthusiasts alone as our probable clients. Our mission is to reach premium households where due to paucity of time or excess of work, traveling for leisure to culturally historic places though is a rarity, but a hidden desire within… where introducing their children to different cultures and different peoples is a wish, but not accomplished due to the pressures of modern living. Hence, Avana is creating a bridge between the past and the present – with redesigned contemporary utilitarian traditional craftsmanship – and between the East and the West by presenting traditional authentic designs from Africa to the Western world.

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Master artisans Emmanuel Kouame, Julien and Fabrice with Consul Honoraire of The Republic of Cote d’Ivoire Dr. Claude Zaho as he relaxes in a hand-carved Ivorian chair from Avana Africa.

Q: Vandana, what have you discovered about yourself since embarking on this journey?

I have discovered a tremendous source of strength, compassion and patience in my system that amazes me too sometimes. I have faced several challenges and adversities and unpleasant surprises at each and every step, big or small, ever since I embarked on this journey. I did not get anything easily. But, the good news has been that there was always a light at the end of the tunnel… there was always another door open, when one had closed. This affirmed my faith in the Almighty and assured me that I too must be a chosen child and this must be God’s way of testing my strength as this journey is not for the weak. To support someone, you need stronger shoulders yourself and I have discovered that I am strong and practical and I don’t over promise and under-deliver. I take up challenges after ascertaining the feasibility and I make only those promises that I know I can deliver.

I always knew I had a weak heart for the weak. But, this cause I am championing is not a cause of the lesser privileged. These artisans are far more privileged than many as they have the might  and knowledge of traditions, skills and ability to transform a dream into a reality that many of us find difficult or impossible to achieve. Avana has taught me to appreciate true craftsmanship, identify real artisans, finesse of a hand and the genuineness of a heart.

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A contemporary Ivorian stool hand-carved by Emmanuel Kouame for Avana Africa.

Q: Mr. Kouame, what do you hope the person who buys one of your pieces feels when they take it home?

With every piece, I send in a little part of me. I want each person who carries a piece of Avana to feel that Africa is a land of warmth and love and we depict our love for each other and the earth and other cultures through several ways, art being one of the primary methods. While we are a very old living tradition, we are also making efforts to be with the times and people who buy my pieces will tell you that I mostly do not sculpt anything traditional. I love forms and shapes and I love nature, which is what is reflected in all my creations.

Follow Avana Africa on Instagram and inquire about prices and availability through their website.

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