Twenty three-year-old Madodana Cita, known to everyone as Mardee, grew up with a passion for art in a small rural village in the Whittlesea district of the Eastern Cape. “At the school I attended,” he laughs, “no one had heard of a subject like art, but one thing I knew for sure, I wanted to be an artist; I have a God-given talent.”

Each of Mardee’s stylish hats is a unique work of art which can either be worn or, in a display on the wall of a room, feature as a focal point.

Mardee had no idea how he was going to achieve his goal, but instinctively felt it would probably be a good idea to go somewhere where there were other artists from whom he could learn. So he packed his bag, took the wood carvings he had been making and headed for sprawling Khayalitsha in the Western Cape.

Fortunately for Mardee, and for us, a friend in Cape Town told him about this place,   Hermanus, the home of many artists, where the Whale Festival would soon take place and he might find a market for his work. This sounded promising, so Mardee set off for the town, turning over in his mind how he could stand out from the crowd and market his wares more effectively. He came up with the startling idea of turning himself into a walking work of art. So, painting his clothes, his shoes and his hat in eye-popping designs, he strode out boldly on the bustling streets of Hermanus.

And noticed he certainly was. Not only did he sell his carvings, but he was directed to the Youth Café in Zwelihle where it was suggested he might meet other artists and perhaps even find a place to continue his work. That was in October 2019. Even more striking than his sartorial excesses were Mardee’s sunny smile, his energy, infectious enthusiasm, and passion for art. Soon he was able to set up a small studio at the RDP House, where, with the help of Angela Heslop, he started experimenting with pottery-making. In addition, he became a familiar figure at all the art galleries in town, studying the various genres of art on display and sometimes meeting the artists. 

Indeed, it was at the opening of one such exhibition that he serendipitously met someone who was to become a life-changing mentor and friend. The contact was precipitated by one of the painted hats he continued to make and wear. “His straw hat was so stunningly original, I absolutely fell in love with it,” relates Hermanus art lover, Lillian Lloys Ellis, “so I asked him if I could buy it from him.” And that was the beginning of an all-out adventure for the two of them. 

“It’s been like a miracle, really,” continues Lillian. “Everyone who saw my hat wanted to buy it, too. So I contacted Mardee and asked if he had thought of producing these head-turning hats on a more ambitious scale, to sell. With his usual enthusiasm, he embraced the idea and that’s how Mardee’s wearable art came into being.”

Each hat designed by Mardee is unique. At first he thought he would keep a record of the designs and repeat them. “But I just got bored with that, so each one is an original work of art, signed by me. I mainly base the designs on Ndebele art, because I like the shapes and bright colours, but now I’m starting to introduce other ethnic designs. One of my latest hats is a combination of Ndebele and Basotho designs.”

Lillian was able to source panama-style hats in white and beige made from recycled woven paper (yes, paper), porous enough to absorb the acrylic paint used by Mardee. They also discovered that the paint was more durable if a white base coat was applied first. The hat manufacturers’ label indicated that the material was water resistant and this was unintentionally put to the test when one day Lillian’s hat flew into the sea. Fearing the worst, she fished it out of the water, left it in the sun to dry and it was as good as new!

When Mardee had accumulated enough painted hats, Lillian organised an open day at Ficks Restaurant to test public response. They were also displayed at the FynArts Gallery and Intethe Gallery. Despite Covid and its impact on tourism, the hats have flown off their hooks so fast since November that Mardee started losing hope of keeping up with demand. Then into his life came three young helpers (one of them still in high school).

Lwandiso Mhlanyana, Lwandiso Tunakale and Sibahle Gupta jumped at the chance of becoming involved in this project, so after Mardee has drawn the designs on the hats, they apply the base coat and then help him with the final acrylic coat. All the income derived from the sale of the hats is ploughed back into the purchase of new materials and remuneration for Mardee and his helpers.

Mardee Cita and Lillian Lloys Ellis are super-excited about the success of Mardee’s Wearable Art hats, which are turning heads wherever they go.

The hats they source are presently all the same size, so if purchasers are afraid they will not fit them, they are welcome to buy their own hat and bring it to Mardee to be decorated.  The sneakers he first painted for the Whale Festival are also still causing a buzz and he has begun to paint bespoke designs on clients’ own footwear, preferably on canvas or leather.

At the same time, they are exploring the future development of the project. Lillian has a sister in Rome who makes and sells her own upmarket bags combining African design with Italian flair and they are hoping to add Mardee’s Hats to her product range. There is also the possibility of an outlet in London. In Hermanus, Lillian would love to establish an open-fronted studio in the CBD, where visitors can watch young emerging artists at work and buy directly from them. Unfortunately, all the premises she has investigated cost too much to rent. She is hoping that someone might come to the fore to contribute space for this worthwhile project.

For now, Mardee is riding the wave of excitement. He recently participated in the FynArts bollard-painting project and regularly helps out its gallery. “I just love art, all art, and I want to try every kind of medium, but for now, I’m focusing on my hats and shoes.” 

For those who would like to stay ahead of the trend, Mardee’s hats are available at the new Intethe Gallery at 3 High Street (in the old Savannah Café building), Station Square.

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