At Ami Doshi Shah’s studio in Nairobi there are many sharp objects — hammers, pliers, pins, saws and wires — things that whirr and cut. A gas cylinder sits ominously under a table. Then there are books on jewellery and metalsmiths, African art and her talismanic pieces of jewellery hanging from the wall.
Ami studied jewellery and silversmith at Birmingham School of Jewellery in the UK and she is a recipient of the prestigious Goldsmith Award (Best Apprentice Trainee Designer UK). In 2013, she started her design label called "I am I", a brilliant wordplay of her first Ami.
She is just back from the UK where she was the only Kenyan jeweller to showcase her work at the London Fashion Week. She makes her jewellery from off cuts and remnants from the mining industry. She, adorned in an apron, talked to JACKSON BIKO about what it means to work with your hands and create with your mind.
Are you living your best creative life now?
I definitely feel so even though I have crises of self-confidence. I think creativity is constantly plagued with self-doubt. That your work is not good enough and what people think of it. (Chuckles). I go through those waves but I have to check myself and be like, ‘this is something that so many people won’t to be able to do.’
It’s been a long journey and it’s still happening. After graduating in the UK, I went to India to do my internship for six months. My parents paid for all that and so I think I had pressure to start showing that this artistic pursuit was worth their money and support. When I came back home, I had to work in advertising agencies for two years then went back to the UK for my Master’s degree in marketing and communication. I worked for another four years in London and then I got married. I was 25. I moved back here once we had our first child. I went back to corporate world then I had a meltdown one day and my friend told me, ‘if you want to be a jeweller and be happy, then quit your job and be a jeweller.’ Now here I am.
What sort of impact does showcasing at the London Fashion Week have on your work as an artist and does it change your creative expression?
Mostly it is validation, I was humbled that I was the only jewellery designer that was selected among 16 from around the world.
It helps a great deal in that I’m more exposed and it also translated into consultancy projects.
At what point do you as a designer say, ‘I love this, I enjoy doing this, it’s what I want to keep doing, but it would also be nice if it started making me money?
At the end of the day if you feel that your work is fulfilling and is guided by passion and pride, the financial rewards will come. I have never wanted to be the brand that makes a thousand pieces of one design and be stocked in 15 million stores. For me it is about engaging with the clients, having them come to the studio and see how it is done and to appreciate it.
Would you call it labour of love?
I would definitely call it that. It’s humbling to labour on something you love.
What is your creative process, do you work with the door closed, mumbling under your breathe, tapping into your imagination and into the future.
(Laughs) As you can tell this looks like a torture chamber. I work with doors closed and headphones on. I could be listening to one of my numerous playlists or an audiobook, it depends where my head space is at that time. (Pause). It is so difficult when someone asks me where I draw my inspiration. There are multiple sources for me. It’s very interesting for me to explore both the Indian and European culture in my work. I’ve started working a lot more with a stone called zoisite which is mined in Taita Taveta and it is a by-product of ruby.
Now that you are here, what is the thinking behind a bride giving jewellery and dowry to a groom during Indian marriages?
Normally the bride would sometimes be married far away from where she has grown up and the family paying dowry to the man’s family was for them to look after their daughter.
So you are paid to take care of your wife?
(Chuckles) Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But that’s really changing now. It can seem like a very cruel practice in a lot of ways because there are times when a bride’s family can’t afford to give the dowry which means in rural India there are many families that can’t “afford” to have daughters.
Should a piece of jewellery start a conversation or should it be subtle and unobtrusive?
My jewellery is normally quite unusual and so it starts conversations. I believe that what we choose to put on our bodies tells people so much about who we are as individuals.
How do you unwind from all these?
I have two children. (Laughs) And a husband. Children always ground you. They provide the light at the end of the tunnel in a lot of ways. They are eight and 11 years old. When you are a mother and you are putting 100 percent in your work, you are always plagued by guilt because you feel that you have neglected them. I have incredible parents, I grew up with a stay-at-home mom and although I would not change anything about my childhood it’s important for my sons to see their mom doing things that she is passionate about.
Now that you are a famous jeweller, are you going to make a unique piece of jewellery for Mr. Shah, your husband, so that he takes good care of you?
(Laughs) I have made a ring for him. I think it’s a decent piece. I have known him since we were 12. We started dating when we were 15 years old and got married at 25. Now I’m 39, so I have known him a long time! (Laughs) Sometimes I literally want to throttle him (Laughs).
He’s incredibly supportive, always pushing me to get to the next level. I’m only getting soapy because he’s not here, if he was I wouldn’t be saying these things, I would be acting very cool. (Laughs).