He’s the artist, educator and Chief Executive Officer behind Contour Functional Art, a sustainable art and design firm uplifting East African communities.
The company builds on a thoughtful concept. Contour works alongside skilled local craftsmen in a corner of Malawi to create custom artworks modelled from repurposed rare woods. These imagined as heirloom items, created with skill and commitment, within a project with much wider value.
Contour is a fascinating marriage of social enterprise, art, and teaching. Jamar, and business partners, Ike Igbo and Brandon Destouet, have created a way to bring people together personally and internationally to develop socially engaged arts practice. The pieces they are creating and supplying for the American market are beautiful and sustainable in their own right. But the larger effect they have on empowering local communities is much greater.
Every piece of work that Contour produces, whether as large as an elegant dining table, to a delicately-crafted bowl, begins with the falling of a long-lived tree. Not through a man’s hand though, but always from natural events. All the wood that Contour uses is sustainably sourced in this way, following a thorough assessment to ensure it was properly felled.
Using this method, and lowering their ecological impact, means Contour also is licensed by the Malawi Minister of Forestry to use a number of restricted rare woods. These include wonderfully-aged specimens of teak, mahogany, acacia and others. Contour is also recognised by CITES and the United States Department of Agriculture.
Once it’s established that the tree is a sustainable source, it’s collected from local villages and transported to a small business in the Malawian capital for kiln drying. It’s also fumigated and heat treated. This ensures quality and durability in the materials the craftspeople use. These pieces are built to last. Legacy and sustainability are important to Jamar and the team he works with.
When the wood is ready it returns to the Contour workshop. Here a general contractor heads up the work, bringing in a variety of craftsman to complete the work needed. The numbers of employees involved in the chain is impressive for the simplicity of the idea. Across all three areas of finding and assessing the materials, kiln-drying and then crafting, around 40 people are connected to the company.
The real difference comes next. It’s in how these people work. Jamar sees himself more of an educator than a business person. As the company’s creative director he oversees design and the creative direction of Contour, working tightly and supportively to teams on the ground. Jamar is himself an award-winning art educator and a published fine artist with a background in urban design. Together they explore what the work can be, and what it should be, and how to create something with a legacy for both the owner, and the creator.
When work comes into the shop, Jamar and the team embark on a creative direction, offering support along the way to build the skills and training that this work needs. Contour also offers training on vital business skills, like how to manage a workflow, basic cash management and business best practices. Jamar and the team work towards teaching and training at every step of the process that develops the artist and the work they can achieve together. The goal is always beautiful art, but what that develops alongside is creating and sustaining new businesses owned and operated locally by Malawians. It’s empowerment through education. All through the shared love of art.
Jamar currently lives in Houston and explains art has always driven his life. His mother encouraged him to create, he explains. It’s her words that Jamar repeated at the top of this page. If you love art, you need to practice. He credits her for instilling positivity in him, and a “sweat equity” that he’s now investing in others. It’s this long-held commitment to practice, love and hard work that shines through in Jamar’s pathway to heading up Contour.
At the beginning of his career, he studied landscape architecture as his undergraduate programme at Louisiana State University. This took him to opportunities to work in the often computer-aided design heavy area of urban design. He tells the story that one day, frustrated by the lack of sketching and hand-drawn process in his work, he decided to become an art teacher. He reflects on what that decision became saying, that sometimes you begin one journey but the path varies. He always believed that teaching was going to turn into something greater, he adds. At the time, he just didn’t know what that was.
His own practice has grown and developed in new and interesting ways during his teaching career. His skills now see him recognised as a skilled oil painter, with a specialty in realistic portraiture. Houston, Baton Rouge, and Los Angeles have all been host to his exhibitions.
Contour as a concept, and a project, came about after Jamar visited a family friend in Malawi and discovered the intricate and beautiful wooden craftwork that skilled craftspeople were producing. The act of travelling helped him realise how small the world truly is, he explains, and that through the lens of the art and skill being poured into these items, he understood instinctively that across the world we as a people share many of the same values and goals.
This grew to the idea that if given the opportunity, we can actually positively affect each other. He sees that as either short or sustained opportunities but either way we all have the ability to affect one another through this shared connection. His immediate connection was to the talented Malawian artisans, a connection forged through a passion for art. This passion is the thing now driving forward Jamar’s work to connect him, his team, and the thoughtful consumer.
Contour builds on this idea of connections, between people and places and ideas. All connected by beautiful and sustainable art that respects the place it comes from. Respects it in not just the materials it is fashioned from, but also respects the time, creativity and skill that the piece represents. Contour was created to further an art, but also to further the artisans. In designing and creating beautiful pieces of work it helps people to design and build their own future. It’s opportunities, building communities and building partnerships.
This love of both place and design is modelled into the company’s process. The very early stages of their design method involves gathering materials from the place that inspires the work of art. The material palette will be used as inspiration for lines, colours and textures for future artwork. The work they produce is not just a reflection of the place that it comes from, it’s entirely developed from it.
This process of designing, building and curating is a very complex, yet smooth process that enables Contour to see a vision played out in each work of art. It’s a story of community and consistency in beauty. The team work towards a common design language throughout all of their work and they’ve always viewed this as an essential goal for a meaningful project. They’re rightly proud of what they’ve done, but Jamar and the Contour team see there is so much more to do.
On the business side, Contour are committed to a program they call R.O.S.E which offers support and work for artisans through reinvestment, outreach to groups, sustainable projects and empowerment.
Jamar has also put partnerships in place with local organizations like Root to Fruit, a non-profit organization that plants trees throughout Malawi. Contour is their first and only American partner and supports their goals to meet the challenges of deforestation. This issue of the loss of trees and habitats has been an issue facing the country for many years and, in partnership, Contour is pledging to plant up to 20 trees for every piece of functional art sold in America.
The figures from the Malawi authorities suggest around 8.4 million acres of natural forests are being destroyed in the country every year. That’s a rate of around 2% per year with loggers creating space for charcoal production. Water supplies to major urban areas are now being affected, and military operations are being launched to protect against illegal logging. As consumers, we all need to be aware of – and make better choices around – how the items we buy are produced.
We’re back to the idea of connectedness. Of shared experience. Of contributing something to the bigger picture because we all share art and love in common. Since starting Contour in the summer of 2018, Jamar has taught art to African school children and started the foundations of a design school. Alongside this injection of creative opportunity, Jamar supports his growing group of craftsmen to start businesses of their own. That’s through time, training and commitment.
In fact, commitment to an exquisite quality of work will always discern the most skilled of artists. However, what seems to discern Jamar and his project further is the commitment to a wider base of being different. Of working to something extra that stands the work apart. Art as a concept is always created to make an impact, to challenge your mind, to develop new ideas and see new perspectives. This project goes further, it changes lives.