Professor Kate Wells holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a Master of Arts in Design from Middlesex University, London. For the past 18 years she has worked in the fields of rural crafts and HIV/AIDS education, both as a researcher and in community development.
Her contributions to this subject began as a challenge from her colleague and friend, Professor Ian Sutherland, who prompted Prof Wells to help create a centre of excellence for African art and craft. Soon after Joe Thorpe, then head of the African Art Centre also asked Kate to help address the needs of local craft workers. Subsequently, through the National Crafts Council she established markets to facilitate sales both nationally and internationally, allowing rural women to earn an income from their crafts.
Her involvement grew further when she was asked to help with a craft workshop, which was complicated by language barriers. But soon a broken form of sign language developed and communication began.
In the late 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was not yet an open topic for conversation, Kate was offered funding through the Gender and Development Fund of the British Council – on condition it was used for both crafts and HIV/AIDS education. She approached key people to help; and gained assistance from doctors, sangoma’s, poets, dancers and all manner of folk from improve theatre. This was the start of The Siyazama Project, an initiative of the Durban University of Technology’s design department: Design Education for Sustainable Development. It was this collaborative relationship that facilitated the project’s maximum growth potential.
The beaded dolls produced by the Siyazama Project have become a symbol for HIV/AIDS awareness with their unique Siyazama HIV/AIDS ribbon. The project has featured in many exhibitions, both locally and internationally; and has been described as a project with long legs!
Currently, together with a Swedish all-female designer group called FRONT, crafters create work, which is intended for international high-level design outlets. Kate has contributed to many publications and has co-authored Siyazama: Art, Aids and Education in South Africa and Zulu Beadwork.
Among many other awards and nominations, she has received the top researcher award from DUT and the top community project in My Africa. While Prof Wells is now semi-retired, her involvement with Siyazama is far from over, as there is talk of another book and even a film.