Sometimes my exciting friends do exciting things. My friend Staffan Martikainen, with whom I've exchanged emails on various subjects for years now, is one such friend; Porcupine, the business he jointly runs, is one such thing.
Porcupine is an online shop selling home furnishings and other beautiful items, most of which come from West Africa. For those, like me, who have had little exposure to contemporary designs and objects from the countries in question, the items for sale are an aesthetic revelation. Some stand-out items for sale on Porcupine include game boards from Ethiopia, baskets from Mali, papier-mâché bowls from South Africa, plastic mats and beach bags from Senegal, and wooden frames from Togo. Products from Ethiopia, Mali, and Senegal are particularly well represented on the site.
Porcupine operates out of Brussels, where company co-owners Martikainen, a translator, and Jarmo Pikkujämsä, a doctoral student in African Literature, live. Both have spent a great deal of time traveling and establishing friendship networks in Africa, particularly in West Africa. The two observed how few of the beautiful objects they came across on their travels could be found outside Africa. After exhausting their friends' appetites for souvenirs, they set up Porcupine.
Most of the objects sold on the site are sourced directly from the craftspeople or producers themselves. "Basically, we try to avoid too many intermediaries," Martikainen tells me, "and in most cases we pay without haggling, unlike most resellers." The company is very small. Accordingly, obtaining official fair trade certification for every product is beyond the proprietors' means, though there are some fair trade certified items on the site that have been purchased from associations that operate with the certification. "Ideally, we'd like to promote cooperatives, women, charities and so on, but we don't compromise. We need to like the articles themselves."
I especially like the modern items for sale on the site, like the handmade rubber toiletries bag from Senegal, which is priced at €14. When I told Martikainen how much I like these modern objects, some of which refashion recycled materials, he went on an illuminating tear: "What we are primarily interested in is everyday objects which have a practical use, produced for a local African market," items constructed out of traditional and modern materials alike.
Martikainen's last word: "One of our missions is to get people to stop associating Africa with (1) colonial style and hunting trophies and (2) masks and statues that are mass produced just for the tourist trade, in many cases with no links to local tradition. There will never be any masks for sale on Porcupine."