Meet Your Merchant: Textile Designs Of Nevada City Woman Honors Ancient Global Traditions

Eno Jonah. Image: Elias Funez/The Union


BY CORY FISHER

NEVADA CITY (THE UNION)
-- Eno Jonah was born in 1969 in Nigeria, just when the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War was drawing to a close. Her rural hometown of Ikot Ekpene had seen some of the war’s worst destruction.

A cherished childhood photo shows a beaming 3-year-old Eno standing next to her birthday cake with a single large candle, otherwise used to light the house.

But post-war, Ikot Ekpene, “The Raffia City,” was also known for its resilience and craftsmanship. Artisans throughout the region had a centuries-long history of making cloth from raffia fiber, which was often sold in a central craft market, along with other handmade treasures. The work of the artisan captivated Eno’s imagination as a young girl.

“The things they made were unique, sustainable and beautiful,” she said. “And you always knew the person who made them. I was fascinated by handmade products.”

In a town devastated by war, there were no stores to buy everyday clothing, so Eno’s mother would take her to a seamstress to get clothes made. She discovered that while she had little interest in learning to sew, she became passionate about textile design. The feel of the fabric, the muted colors of the earth and the traditional themes drew her in. She dreamed of someday owning a small textile design business featuring fabric handcrafted by master weavers who used home looms and other traditional methods.

In her 20s, Eno met and married an American biologist, Cliff Gold, and together they moved to Uganda with her son, where Cliff had a job with an international agricultural research institute. By then Eno, a natural entrepreneur, had already started and sold a company that produced T-shirts for golf companies and corporate sponsors. When she landed in Uganda, she saw there was a market for affordable, higher end, gently-used American clothing.

“I would buy clothes in bulk from the U.S. and sell them wholesale to retail stores in Uganda,” said Eno.

But the political instability of the region eventually came knocking at Eno’s door. The bank where she kept her savings abruptly closed and her money was gone. Concurrently, the market for higher-end clothing was waning, and Eno eventually sold off her entire inventory and closed the business.

But her entrepreneurial ventures had not ended in vain. Eno had learned valuable lessons when it came to running a business and was adept at establishing a meaningful rapport with people at all different levels. Her integrity, down-to-earth nature, warmth, and the smile that was so evident in her childhood birthday photo, easily won people over.

In 2010, Eno and Cliff moved to the United States, and by that time the couple had traveled extensively throughout West Africa, Asia and South America. The exploration of the rich cultures they encountered had reignited Eno’s long-held passion for textile design.

“I’d gone to textile workshops and visited artisans and textile producers in their small homes around the world,” she said. “At that point I began to identify who I would be going back to once I started my business. I wanted to have a direct, personal connection with my projects — to hear the stories and learn about the skills artists learned from their mothers.”

In 2012, Eno and Cliff decided to leave the congestion of the San Francisco Bay Area and bought a large, craftsman-style home outside Nevada City. While the aspen, maple and manzanita outside their windows are a far cry from the humid plains of southern Nigeria, to go inside is to experience African craftsmanship at its finest, including the furniture, sculptures and textiles in many forms.

In 2013, after earning a degree in cultural and development, Eno launched her own company, Nzuri Textiles. The word “nzuri” meaning “beautiful” in Swahili.

“My vision was to create lines of hand-painted textiles for the home, including upholstery, pillows, draperies, curtains, blinds and table cloths,” said Eno. “But now I’m also selling items made from Mongolian cashmere — some of the finest in the world — such as scarves, blankets and throws. It’s very fulfilling to travel to these far off places and create personal relationships.”

The quality of Eno’s design, in concert with pieces handmade by the likes Guatemalan weavers, basket makers in Thailand, and hand-painted indigo textiles of her homeland are a reflection of the rich relationships that Eno has cultivated.

“My objective is to introduce African and other concepts of beauty into contemporary home d├ęcor,” said Eno. “We blend traditional and modern designs for life style products designed to enhance your home. Some have taken more than a year to develop. A lot of thought goes into every piece of work.”

No one was more surprised than Eno when, after a slow launch, Nzuri Textiles began to catch the eye of high-end designers. Today, two years later, her products can be found in museums and showrooms in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, South Carolina and Brisbane, Australia. Despite being thrown in with well-known designer brands, the young, small-run boutique products produced by Nzuri Textiles are clearly attracting attention. Today they can be shipped anywhere in the world.

No one is happier with Eno’s success than her husband, Cliff, who says that — after many years of her supporting his international work — it’s Eno’s chance to shine. Retired, he now works as her assistant.

“It was challenging for Eno at first — I was the only person she knew in the U.S.,” he said. “She is someone who appreciates artistic quality and the cultural aspect of how textiles integrate into an entire culture.”

“When I first learned that these high end showrooms were interested in my textiles, I screamed,” said Eno, with a laugh. “How is that a Nigerian comes to the U.S.A., starts a small business and is now attracting this kind of attention? Having people at these showrooms look at my creations and say, ‘I want that’ is amazing. How is that possible?”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at cfisher@theunion.com.

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