For the price of seven cows

Luke Harding

Cg’ose Ntcox’o, an illiterate Botswanan artist, was delighted when British Airways (BA)bought one of her works. She promptly splashed out on seven cows, built herself a shack on the edge of the Kalahari desert, and gave the rest of the money to her many nomadic relatives.

Last week, however, Ntcox’o was deeply unhappy after discovering that her painting, of hyenas and trees, had been used by BA to redecorate its fleet. The firm has incorporated the design into the tail-fin of several jets, as part of a global makeover.

“I may be illiterate, but I’m not stupid,” she said, speaking through an interpreter, and added defiantly: “I know what my artwork is worth.”

Ntcox’o is a member of the dwindling San bushman tribe.
She received 12 000 pula (R15 000) for her efforts.

Having spotted the work in a London art gallery, an emissary from BA flew to Botswana and got the 42-year-old woman to sign away the copyright.

“I just saw this person who said he was from London. He gave me a piece of paper and told me to make a cross,” she said.

Now bankrupt, and living in the dust- blown town of Ghanzi, in north-west Bostwana, on the edge of a desert of rolling salt pans, Ntcox’o claims she is entitled to more pula.

Her husband has tuberculosis, her daughter is unemployed and she has a large family to support.

It was only when BA held a special ceremony that she realised that her design had ended up on the back of what she described in San language as a big fly - an airplane.

The world’s favourite airline made it clear it had no intention of giving her more money. “She got a fair deal,” a BA representative in South Africa said.

In London, another BA representative said the company was “very sorry” to hear Ntcox’o felt cheated. She could console herself with the fact that her work was now known the world over.

Meanwhile, the Kuru Development Trust, which sold the painting, claimed that the San people lived in a “pre-cash society” and had no understanding of the value of money.

“The artist is illiterate. She is happy. She has no need for money,” trust representative Rein Dekkar declared.

Since the visit from a BA representative in February last year, Ntcox’o has been hauled before the trust’s disciplinary committee after complaining to Botswana’s Guardian newspaper.

The trust pocketed half of the BA fee - another 1 900 - giving her the remaining 50%.

“There is no doubt she has been robbed,” journalist Benison Makele, of the Botswanan Guardian, said.

David Hillman, a partner at the London-based design group Pentagram, last night said it was not unusual for unknown illustrators to be ripped off.

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “The terrible thing about this business is it has a lot to do with who you are.”

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