For months before I had met Bakary Sillah from the Gambia, I had heard of his legend. For he is legendary. How many men or women do you know that spend their lives traveling the African continent collecting tribal antiques and handmade craft from village to village throughout almost every country North of the Khalahari. He is rightly so a legend, but he s also a gentlemen with a true passion for his collections and knowledge that runs as deep as his ancestry. Although Sillah is originally from Gambia he now lives in Nigeria, though he is not at home very often. He travels mostly through West Africa: Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya buying all things traditional and exceptionally beautiful African. He excites the shores of South Africa with his treasures found only twice a year coming through Cape Town and Johannesburg for sometimes only a week at a time. If you catch him, you are lucky.
Yesterday I was lucky. Walking into Sillah’s showroom of sorts is a little overwhelming for a buyer, as there is just so much to see and so much of it is rare and beautiful. It is not what is typically found in the markets, but pieces that are attached to history or a tribe. African trade beads can be as old as two hundred years, Nupe stools from Nigeria could be up to 70 years old where upon many a soul have sat and discussed or done business. The Rwanda milk jugs have crossed villages for decades and the Mali jewelry boxes have not only held precious family beads but they have also acted as a protector for the women who have owned them. Even wooden beds collected in the Ivory Coast can be found at Sillah. These things have belonged to not only people, but to tribes and to history.
Sillah is the wholesale dealer to many established business owners and designers in South Africa. While in his showroom yesterday, one of the buyers welcomed him back and gave him a hug while another on her way out laden with beads to make necklaces drove all the way from Kynsa (5 hour drive to Cape Town) to see him. For all that he has seen and all the wise people he has met he is humble and jolly and proud of his collections. After spending hours lost in the merchandise gathered from across the continent, Sillah shows me his most precious collection of beads. Chevron African Trade beads that cost R120,000/ $12,000 for one strand. When I ask him if he sells beads individually from the strand, he replies like any genuine collector would, No, he does not want to break the collection.