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Sue Powell Bernstein met Andries Botha in 1986, just at a time when the spirits were “right.” Bernstein, a professional fund-raiser from Evanston whose three children were at last grown and on their own, had recently separated from her husband and was looking for a commitment–“something to get me up in the morning besides my job.”

Botha, a white South African, was in the United States seeking outlets for the native crafts and art objects he had been promoting through his unique multiracial Community Art Workshop in Durban. Bernstein was so deeply moved by Botha’s determination to use art to promote interracial understanding in his country that she traveled to South Africa later that year, immersed herself in native art, and came back, she says, “Africanized.” The result is Siza, Ltd., a unique little art gallery celebrating its first birthday this month.

Botha, a successful sculptor in his own right, had spent much time in the black townships studying the ancient, rhythmic skills of Zulu rope making, weaving, beading, and knotting. He adapted these techniques in his own huge sculptures and won a considerable reputation in the South African progressive art community. One of his pieces, made of wood, rubber, aluminum, and wire, seems to portray a beast in hot pursuit of an ethereal figure; its title includes the name of the boat that brought the first white settlers to South Africa. It appears the government overlooked or ignored any subversive intent in Botha’s art, because his works have won several national awards, and one stands in a prominent public place in Johannesburg.

Botha’s regular treks into black settlements aroused in him a deep respect for native art and a determination to create a wider market for the exquisite objects he found there–baskets, musical instruments, carvings–thereby providing badly needed income for the artists and artisans he came to know. By 1988, five years after its creation, Botha’s Community Art Workshop had more than 200 students of a variety of races and was the only integrated art school in the country.

But Botha’s hopes of raising the economic level of the artisans depended largely on foreign outlets. With the tense political situation in South Africa, free-spending tourists were hard to find anywhere and were virtually never seen in the black townships.

So Sue Bernstein became Botha’s contact, promoter, and agent in the United States, finding outlets for his students’ work. She thought of opening her own store for South African art, but Botha, also a student of native African religion, said he did not feel the spirits were yet right for such a project.

In 1988, Bernstein, aided by a North Shore philanthropist, brought Botha to Chicago and arranged a fund-raising benefit for him at the Peace Museum. Although he was tailed wherever he went by South African consulate officials, Botha spoke freely to the press and public about the inequities in his native land–perhaps too freely. He told a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times, “An artist living in a country like South Africa cannot separate his creative work from his compassionate work in that society. You have to play an active role in helping that society.” Shortly after he returned home, Botha’s Community Art Workshop was closed down, without explanation, by the South African security forces.

Undeterred, Botha continued to encourage native art through his faculty position at the Teknekon Natal, a university in Durban. He also developed the Women’s Collective, an organization of weavers, bead stringers, and other artisans from rural areas of Zululand.

Meanwhile, Bernstein continued to wrestle with her dream of opening a gallery in the Chicago area. One day last year she noticed a For Rent sign on a small store on Dempster Street in Evanston. She drove by several times before realizing that the street address, 517, matched her birthday, May 17. She took it as a sign. “I called Andries,” she said, “and I told him the spirits were right and I was going ahead.” He had no choice but to agree.

A bank provided a generous loan, the South African art began to arrive, and Siza, which means “help” in Zulu, opened last fall. To make the operation work, Bernstein quickly learned, she had to offer more than just South African art. So she has gradually expanded Siza’s offerings with Australian aboriginal dream paintings, Guatemalan crafts, Native American art, and various handmade utensils and clothing from Peru, Gambia, and West Africa. “I see the store as a showplace for minority, third world, and undiscovered artists everywhere,” she explains.

Recently, she has popularized the striking graphite and charcoal drawings of Anthony Hughes, a Cabrini-Green native whose work portrays the positive aspects of black urban life. She has also introduced the whimsical, almost psychedelic furniture and jewelry of Norris Hall, an innovative newcomer from Nashville. The result is a tiny store that is ablaze with the colors of countless cultures. The unifying themes in this eclectic menagerie seem to be the love of life issuing from each piece and a pervasive attention to the minutest detail.

The backbone of Bernstein’s inventory remains African art, however–Zulu grass baskets woven so tightly they can hold liquids, little dolls made from mealie cobs (relatives of corncobs) dressed up in beads with cloth dresses and wool hair, intricately patterned necklaces, and rattles and noisemakers with messages of good cheer etched on the outside. Prices range from $5 for a seed necklace up to $400 for a riotously colored wool blanket hand tailored into a jacket. “Just look at these things!” says Bernstein, holding up a basket. “I almost hate to part with them.”

Although interest in Siza has been “phenomenal,” Bernstein says, she is not making a fortune. Profit is minimal, and third world art is not everyone’s passion. But Bernstein hopes American interest in African art will grow. The spirits, she believes, are right.

Siza, Ltd., 517 Dempster in Evanston, is open from noon to 8 Tuesday through Friday and noon to 6 Saturday and Sunday; call 708-866-9220.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.