African treasures, right here at home

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By Jane Bartnett

Gulf Gate is truly a mini-United Nations. After visiting Nontando, a store filled with beautiful artistic treasures from 20 to 25 African countries, I learned so much about this land of 53 nations and 800 ethnic groups. Africa, I discovered, is a place that close to a billion people call home. And Nontando is a part of the international fabric that makes Gulf Gate such a special destination.

Owner Gary Stern is a Cape Town, South Africa native who spent his previous career in New York, working as a consultant with Arthur Anderson. In 2003, he and his family left Manhattan behind, and he launched a new career as an importer and owner of his African art store.

Stern found a strong market for these unique pieces. “It’s a niche business,” he noted.

Having just returned from his annual month-long buying trip to Africa in September, he spoke with me about his trip and some of the African artisans that he has come to know and work with throughout the years.

“I go to the villages and deal directly with the artists,” he said. Many have become his friends and each time that Stern returns he makes new discoveries.

“About 30% of what I bring back is pre-planned,” he said. “Each time that I go back, I look for new ideas and new artists. It’s really an adventure.”

An African ostrich egg light.

As we came to a glass case, Stern removed a small decorative metal and stone piece created by an artist named Spencer, from Harare, Zimbabwe. “Spencer,” said Stern, “is one of the most talented artists you’ll ever meet.” It was Spencer who first discovered Stern through social media two years ago. When Stern saw Spencer’s designs, made from recycled metal, he was captivated. They soon began working together.

This fall, when Stern was in Cape Town, he paid for Spencer to travel to and from Cape Town. Traveling by bus, Spencer made the 1,500-mile journey so that the two could meet in person. Stern also paid for Spencer’s accommodations. It was Spencer’s first trip away from his hometown. 

On his journey, Spencer brought many pieces that Stern purchased for Nontando.

“We have a special bond now,” said Stern as he recalled their time together.

Social media, emails and texts, we agreed, will never replace meeting someone in person.

As we walked through the store, Stern explained what the meaning of many of the exquisite and unusual items were. It was a learning experience. When I mentioned that he was a good teacher and suggested he give a class on the art and culture of Africa, he smiled and said that he’s really not much of an extrovert.

Stern stopped at a wall of ceremonial African masks. Some were large and others quite small. Shown together, they made a very dramatic presentation. When I asked about a large mask with a beautiful soft white finish, he explained that it was made by the Punu people of Cameroon, a coastal west-central African nation. The patina, Stern explained, is designed to ward off evil spirits.

As we continued our tour through the store, Stern explained that different regions of Africa specialize in different items. Baskets in all shapes, sizes and colors come from South Africa and some central African nations.

“I source all of these items from many places and from personal contacts developed over the years,” he said.

Nontando owner Gary Stern displays in his Gulf Gate store a Zulu shield made of South African cowhide. (photo by Jane Bartnett)

Exquisitely hand-carved zebras, giraffes and other native African animals are on display alongside large carved colonial statues from the Ivory Coast, hand-painted ostrich eggs, and colorful textiles.

When a large Zulu shield caught my attention, Stern said that the Zulu make the shields from South African cowhide. Once used in battle, the shields are now displayed at traditional wedding and funeral ceremonies. Stern pointed out that decorators and designers find them of special interest for display in homes and offices.

Stern’s customers are widely varied. Many are visitors and local residents. Designers, collectors and many who find Nontando on social media and the web come to the store or connect online.

He recalled his surprise when Conde Nast called one day. “They found me online,” he said. The publishing company purchased masks and statues from the Bamileke people of Cameroon for display in one of its offices.

“Here’s something that I found on my trip” said Stern as I paused to look at a group of beaded necklaces and other colorful jewelry items. He placed an emerald green malachite necklace from the Congo on his desk. “And here’s a malachite dish and box.” The price was right, and I thought to myself what perfect gifts!

With the holidays on the horizon, Nontando is one of Gulf Gate’s wonders and a fun way to take a trip to these far-off lands without leaving town. Where else can you find such a collection of unusual handmade gifts, collectables, and everyday items for the home ranging from $5 to $1,500 and above?

Nontando, at 6578 Gulf Gate Ave., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Call (941) 929-7844 or visit online at and on Instagram at: @Nontandoafrica.

All shipping is free.

Jane Bartnett
Author: Jane Bartnett

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