Lisa in her gallery
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How Cancer Survivor Lisa Built a Strong African Tribe Art Business

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Any successful person will tell you about a life-defining moment from their past that was responsible for making them who they are today. Lisa Christoffersen shares with us some of the moments that caused big epiphanies, not only in her personal life, but in her health, well-being, and her business.

They say moving can be stressful and as traumatic as death, public speaking, bad bosses and divorce, and so it was for Lisa Christoffersen. A third generation Tanzanian-born Danish citizen, she grew up on the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro and spent the first three years of her school life at Arusha Boarding School. However, in 1974 she moved to Denmark with her family.  It was a massive culture shock coming from Africa to Denmark and it took a while for Lisa to adjust to the life in Denmark. She missed Africa immensely. From the tender age of 18, Lisa started working at Copenhagen Airport for Scandinavian Airlines who back then, was the handling agent for most major airlines, giving Lisa the opportunity to travel frequently back to Africa on her almost free tickets, part of the perks working for SAS. During one of Lisa’s visits to Kenya, she met an architect – interior designer based in Kenya, who later phoned her in Denmark and offered her a job in Nairobi spearheading the interior project he was responsible for at Safari Park Hotel.  At age 22, she packed her Danish life into 22 suitcases, along with a one-way ticket to Kenya. Lisa began her job at Safari Park Hotel the day after she arrived, and proved her natural talent in interior design and decorating.  Most weekends she spent going on safari and visiting national parks and reserves in Kenya.

Five years later, Lisa moved once again, this time with fewer suitcases, to Arusha, Tanzania to set up a small safari company and a shop called ‘Bush Friendly’. During Lisa’s time in Arusha, she had the opportunity to meet Dr. Koloss, who is an authority on African tribal arts and the curator for a tribal art museum in Berlin, Germany.  Dr. Koloss was in Tanzania with Gilles Turle who, together with Peter Beard, has written the book, The Art of the Maasai.

Lisa joined Gilles Turle and Dr. Koloss on a safari to Maasai land to visit a Maasai Laibon (medicine man) and during this safari Lisa was fascinated with what she learned from Dr. Koloss.  She began her lifelong love for tribal arts, tribal textiles, everyday household objects and tribal jewelry.  She had a new calling – she wanted to become an authority on East African tribal arts.

The Home Gallery

I met Lisa at the Home Gallery, a haven where she is widely known as an interior designer and an African Art Dealer.  It’s a treasure trove where every wall is adorned with tribal shields, weapons, masks, and African tribal textiles.  The entire ground floor is filled with tribal stools, high back chief chairs, musical instruments, tribal wooden vessels used as planters for orchids.  I take a minute or two to take it all in.  Her passion for the tribal arts can be felt in every art piece she has personally collected.

After our coffee, Lisa explains to me that some of her inspirations came from the beautiful patterns hand woven and hand embroidered into cloth made from the raffia fiber of the raffia palm tree, made by the Kuba tribe in the Congo. She then started transferring these Bakuba patterns, as this cloth is known, into the finest pashmina shawls handmade and hand painted uniquely and exclusively for Lisa in Nepal.  Soon she had a collection of her own African-inspired pashmina shawls, with many different designs inspired from the Bakuba raffia textiles, and others from the African bush.  Quite a few celebrities and royalty own a Lisa Christoffersen Pashmina Shawl – Jane Seymour, Rachel Weisz, Cameron Diaz, Elton John, John Kerry and the queen of Norway just to mention a few.

As I admire her work, I take a minute to ponder the value art places in our society today, and so I ask, “Do people buy this stuff?”  She gives me a hearty laugh and responds with a resounding “Yes!”

She has been in business for 15 years, and over time she has built a solid base of both local and international clients. One of her first clients was the American embassy.  They wanted a mix of American culture intertwined with Kenyan culture, and Lisa happened to be the best person for this kind of work.  Her combined interior design skills and tribal art knowledge gave her the competitive edge she needed. The project was a huge success and to date, the embassy still enjoys her art.

In addition to that, she has decorated several ambassadorial residences, private homes, commercial offices (such as Coca Cola) and some banks.  Her clients do not only purchase African antiques and tribal objects, they get inspired by the way she decorates her house, so they end up returning home with both an art object and an idea of what to do with it. It’s a strategy that has led to her stunning success over the years.

Warriors World paint

Warriors World paint

Because I look a tad confused as to why she calls it ‘tribal’ art, she takes a minute to explain to me. African Tribal Arts are objects created and used by African tribes in everyday or ceremonial life, ranging from clothing to everyday household objects.  It includes musical instruments, pipes that both women and men smoke, textiles and body adornments.  Contrary to Western art, says Lisa, African art is categorized as genuinely antique when it ages between 25 and 40 years.

She sources her products by visiting the tribes in person. Beyond this region, she works with suppliers – so called runners – and buys from collectors too, to acquire the items that she is looking for.

Besides English, Danish, German and basic Norwegian, Swedish and French, Lisa is fluent in Kiswahili, which opens doors as she interacts with the tribes she procures from.  Beyond East Africa and the DRC, she maintains a network of tribal arts suppliers from virtually every country on the continent. “These days it is so easy to send and receive images of items and negotiate prices using a smartphone,” she adds.

The Black Swan Moments

Life, however, has not always been smooth for the mother of two. Substantial challenges have been thrown her way.  For starters, she broke her back in an aquaplane crash in Copenhagen which left her hospitalised for six weeks. She also crashed in a single engine aircraft flying over Lake Tanganyika while attempting to land into Kigoma airstrip.

In 2006, she literally stopped breathing after her lungs collapsed. She had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and was being treated in South Africa.  During Lisa’s first chemotherapy treatment, her lungs collapsed, she hemorrhaged into her lungs and stopped breathing. Her body had rejected seven blood transfusions and within minutes, as her temperature soared so high, her body gave up and “died”. The doctors managed to revive her and she was put on life support in a corner of an ICU Unit in South Africa. Having multiple tubes attached to her body and unable to speak, Lisa was confined to pen and paper as she communicated with doctors.

Unfortunately for her, during this time as she fiercely battled for her life, her accountant who was overseeing her business operations decided to use the event to his advantage.  With the notion that Lisa would eventually die, he began to siphon money and channel it to his own personal account. A year later, when Lisa resumed work, she was faced with many challenges.  Her accountant had embezzled funds to the tune of 6 million KES which was proven from bank statements. Furthermore, he had neglected to pay a year’s worth of bills, salaries, suppliers, and so her office was in a mess. To top it all off, in 2007 the Kenyan elections happened, and business came to a screeching halt!

Roberto Orci, a famous Hollywood screenwriter once said, “The chaos in our lives can also open opportunities. The trick is to stay calm in a storm and not miss them, for you can always re-invent yourself.” Lisa picked herself up and embarked on a journey of reinvention. Her business took a hiatus for two years as she tried to recover her losses and in 2010 she was back with a new strength.  A sure sign that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Getting another in-house accountant was not an option, and she scaled down on her staff quite a bit. “When trust is broken, it’s hard to repair it,” Lisa adds, “so for now I keep my staff small and lean.”

As a self-made fashionista, Lisa has found other avenues to expose her art and treasures, by organizing events, including other designers showcasing their styles, thus befitting to all. Her first big fashion show event this year was SPRING INTO STYLE at The Lord Erroll Restaurant in Runda, which was an imminent success.   Five percent of ticket sales was donated to The Human Needs Project in Kibera. She now is part of the Fashion Food Fair, a monthly event held the last Saturday of each month at The Lord Erroll, trailblazing in her craft.

Lisa is the author of one of Kenya’s leading guide books, Bush Friendly Tips for Girls (boys Too!): A Living Safari Guide to Kenya, now in its second edition. The idea to write a comprehensive guide book on our beautiful country occurred to Lisa in 2005 when she was on a girls’ safari in Samburu, staying at a camp along the Ewaso River.  Some of the girls came unprepared in terms of forgetting to bring the right footwear for walking through the bush, crossing the river by foot, and wearing nylon shorts in a very hot environment.  Lisa realized that most people when they go on safari, ladies especially, don’t really take care of their looks. Yet, she thought, “Who knows, it could be on this safari that one may actually meet Mr. Right,” for as she aptly says, “Just because one goes to the bush, one doesn’t have to look ‘bush’.”

The book is a well detailed and researched guide of do’s and don’ts when on safari, with an inclusion of all the destinations in Kenya that one can actually visit and enjoy. It has personal tips and recommendations, stories about how the chicken arrived in Kenya and with a foldable map of Kenya at the back of the book.

Her book has been labelled, “The best travel companion and tour guide rolled up into one” by many who had purchased it and love travelling and exploring.  Lisa’s book can be found in local bookstores, at the Norfolk Hotel Boutique and you can always contact Lisa directly to obtain your very own signed copy.

In her journey to re-invention, Lisa, a cancer survivor, has dedicated her life to service and her greatest desire is to see others grow in their business, for she knows what a struggle it can be. When she was organizing the fashion show, she came across a group of youth who were trying their hand in making and selling shoes. Lisa now works with some of the youth in Kibera assisting with fancy designs to attract the Kenyan market and she aids in selling the shoes for the project.  They can also to be found in the gallery, and as she shows me the shoes, I am pleasantly surprised – they are so well done.

Lisa is an environmentalist and for the past 15 years, her gallery shopping bags have been made from recycled paper.  She’s given the job of making them to the Kawangware Street Children & Youth Project, helping them to help themselves.

Together with a few more projects that she has up her sleeve, Lisa is not complaining, for despite the challenges, her wins have made her emerge stronger.  And there is no stopping her! The 50-something year old is not done yet!  I take a minute to study her from under my eyes, poised with the very best of her collection, and I only have two words for her: fighter, and warrior! You only need to visit her Home Gallery or attend her monthly event to see it for yourself.

Lisa in the wildeness

 

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