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Mary Manaka

Designer Mary Manaka is a free spirit with a story. “My business is to create,” she tells Tony Stanton. Photos: Ryserson Anselmo for Costes Portrait.

Mary, where are you from and how did you grow up?

My roots are from Zimbabwe, my childhood years were spent in Essex, England, and my late teenage years were spent in Sydney, Australia. I grew up on three continents as a child so by the time I reached my teens I was excellent at coping with change. As children, we simply “do” life and go with the flow. I had a culture-rich upbringing from a fiercely independent and intellectual mother who holds three university degrees from three continents. She motivated me and my brother to grow up without boundaries and to think beyond borders. The confusion only became apparent when I started traveling solo at 19. Having a passport that says home but a heart that feels differently.

What’s important to you in life?

Several years ago whilst living in London I realized I was accumulating more things that didn’t really matter or speak to me on a spiritual level. I came to realize I value freedom and flexibility over the ability to just earn more and possess more. So I left life in the city and moved to rural Australia where I spent a couple of years reflecting deeply. That helped me create a blueprint for the life I live currently and I only seek out ways of living accordingly. I embrace aspects of simplicity and other powerful concepts of detachment. This is also reflected in the way I have set up my own micro-business so I can have more control over what work I do. Life is going, as it should, more calmly.

?So you have decided to live life on your own terms?

It would be fair to say that I was born to live on my own terms. That seems to be the major lesson in this incarnation. I was the sort of child who at a very young age could spot hypocrisy. Adults could make me do what they wanted me to do, but they could never make me agree. I was the one in charge of that, and I always knew it. Things that lead to me not living on my terms, I am somehow made blind to.

What’s the most interesting or quirky job you ever had?

From a young age my mother discovered that I had a talent for singing so I had the opportunity to go to stage school. I fell in love with performing arts so when I turned 16 I took myself to London and auditioned for a job as a singer in a band. This became my first paid job . . . singing in a band at The Firehouse in South Kensington. A couple of years later I realized this wasn’t the path for me so one day I stepped off the stage and hung up my singing hat. It was a challenge leaving everything I’d ever known behind to start over but after so many years of performing I was happy to set my sights on a new path. This became my first lesson in detachment and learning to let go.

How do you earn a living today?

I never used to consider myself an entrepreneur, but the term was a vague resemblance of an ideology that resonated with me. I’m a free spirit and this is reflected in the way I earn a living. I always knew my work would be creative as art has always been a large part of my life. When I was a child, I would draw all the time and I learnt crafts passed from my grandmother to the matriarch in my family. By the age of five I could crochet, knit and sew. Little did I know this would play a huge role in my adult life. Fabrics and metals are my medium of choice these days. Ten years ago I started creating wearable art and set up my own brand selling clothing and jewellery. This opened up a whole new world that I’ve been exploring ever since. With a lot of hard work and passion, this is how I earn a living.

What’s the best thing about living in Bali?

To me Bali is always a dichotomous mix. A home and an escape, a place where days can pass in an instant, or draw out interminably. To be at one moment surrounded by such beauty and tranquility and only moments later stuck in traffic behind a ceremonial procession. This is what I love. This island mirrors my love for life – the colourful, the random and the diverse. I travel very often and also spend long periods in Australia. While I’m away of course I enjoy where I am, but I also love returning. Bali feels like home, for now at least.

Tell us about your tattoos.?

I believe tattoos are secrets of the spirit revealed on our skin. I have never planned a tattoo as you can’t plan magic, it just happens. The vibrations of the universe have brought to me beautiful souls who have played important roles in my life. These are the people from whom I have had the honour of marking my skin. This has allowed the process to always flow so easily and the rest is love. I believe a great tattoo is one done without any concern for time, money or competition. This art is ancient and sacred, and I would hope the way I carry my tattoos reflects and honours that.

Do you get a lot of requests from artists that are drawn to you?

I am not sure what would quantify ‘a lot’, but I am fortunate to have had many opportunities. I’m very particular when it comes to modelling. I don’t consider myself a model but I do love to create and capture moments with other creatives. This has led me to working with amazing photographers and collaborations with like-minded people from all over the world. And for years now I have been receiving beautiful artworks from artists. In a society that has come to see busy-ness as a badge of honour, these artworks have really humbled me. Many of these artists do not know me personally, but have taken the time to create these artworks of me. So a few years ago I decided I would honour these artists by creating a gallery and showcasing these pieces they have created. To date I have collected over a 100 pieces of original artwork which I have framed ready for the gallery space in my studio. My aim is to use my platform to showcase some of the incredibly talented artists that I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with. I am also in the process of creating a sub-brand, Voodouart, based around this concept and community which I will launch in December.

What’s your idea of perfect happiness?

Can you imagine what it would be like to live your life without fear? The kind of fear that prevents you from living the life of your dreams? To have absolutely no fear of failure and to be able to set your sights on accomplishing anything you want without limitations. This to me has become my idea of freedom, which equates to happiness.

What is the quality you most like in a man?

I admire in men the same qualities I admire in women. Each of us must work on our own personal improvement and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity. I enjoy connecting with people who believe that we can build a better world and most of all, the belief and faith within themselves that they can make a difference.

And last but not least, what is your motto?

It’s actually a quote by William Blake and it has been my motto for many years now. “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”


Sam Branson