The south african fashion designer Lethabo Tsatsinyane. Photo © Chris Saunders, courtesy PAPA Photographic Archival and Preservation Association
by Jeremy Gaines
Mar 24, 2015
Those hoping to see fanciful fashion fabrics and safari-cabin hardwood furniture will be disappointed in the exhibition on “design” in Africa at the Vitra Design Museum. For this is an exhibition as much about countering precisely such stereotyped, colonialistically-colored perceptions of Africa as it is about a holistic notion of design. And the courageous curators were driven by the firm conviction “that many of the answers to the question what design could and should be in the 21st century are to be found in the Global South, especially in Africa.” It is those answers that they set out to present in “Making Africa. A continent of design”. In fact, it would be fair to say that the exhibition tries to turn the title and subtitle into a single sentence encapsulating the intention.
It is a daring undertaking; after all the continent has over one billion inhabitants, and they are spread across highly different cultures and ethnicities, borderlines drawn by colonialists, borders nowhere near as open as here in the ‘Dreiländereck’. In this regard there are so many Africas that there can be no ready pigeonholing of “African” design. The curators make a virtue of necessity here: They therefore present diversity in the face of adversity – a lack of resources, a lack of large consumer markets, a lack of training facilities. Which enables them to admirably avoid a parochial, eurocentric, ethnological look at a continent.
The show starts with words on a wall: “’Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design’ showcases works from a diverse range of creative fields… that deliberately occupy the grey area between the disciplines, and yet they provide concrete answers to the question of what 21st century design can and should achieve.” The stage is set not by a lot of information on the tough challenges Africa faces – the classical received wisdom – and not by denying the fact, but by highlighting the potential the continent has and how much the emerging middles classes in the 54 countries are doing to develop it. (Caution, middle class here still means an annual income level that will not get you much through the week in London.)
We enter a spectacular world – of arts and crafts spectacles made by Kenyan Cyrus Kabiru, filigree, ornamental, functionless, but incorporating any manner of scrap parts. Junk jewelry at its best, a modern-day mask that alludes to ancestral masks which once incorporated items traded with the missionaries. Now what is incorporated are not cherished items, but abandoned waste: a poignant statement on how Africa refuses to let the rest of the world just use it as a garbage dump. Don these “C-Stunners” and change your perspective.
This Africa may be a world where often no one in the huge slums has a TV, but it is a world where the Internet and mobile phone are firmly at home - and help solve problems. The Vitra Design Museum show cameos the designs for numerous internet portals, multimedia devices, and even a great cellphone game: Made by Maliyo Games in Lagos, it is called “Okada ride” – which translates as motorbike ride. You steer your ‘okada’ through the atrocious traffic of the megacity on your mobile – no doubt while sitting completely immobile: in public transport in a never-ending gridlock. Evidence of how hard it is to break prejudice and stereotypes, the “Spiegel Online” review of ‘Making Africa’ chose as its main photo a brash pink&yellow image of singer Taali M as pars pro toto of what is on show… and neglects to say this is the musician’s Website’s landing image.
The exhibition describes how young Africans, and that is the by far the majority, are tackling their past, with cheeky self-confidence. Classical photographic testimonies to the emerging confidence of the post-colonial era, such as the works of Seydou Keita (Mali) and others, are juxtaposed to new images that meld fashion and past history, examples being images by Mario Macilau (Mozambique), and Omar Victor Diop (Senegal): creations of a new self-identity, a joyful plundering of a colonial past.
Making, Remaking, Premaking
One red thread running from start to finish is the curators’ idea of a pan-African “maker culture”, but this has nothing to do with DIY in the affluent society. Here, the term means what Kenyan professor Mugendi M‘Rithaa alludes to in the catalog, when he declares: “If necessity is the mother of invention, then Africa must be a superpower of innovation… Social innovation is also an expression of what we term design for sustainable development”. For the misnomer “maker culture” therefore read resourcefulness in the absence of resources. What counts is cognizance of the sheer gap in prosperity that needs to be bridged between the “haves” (those with water) and the “have-nots” (those without access to the same).
Africa is a continent of makers in this sense of taking things and giving them a new purpose, and there are countless marvelous exhibits that make the point. Congo’s Bodys Kingelez does this, making flamboyantly excessive model city sculptures from packaging, paper, polystyrene. As do Kenyans Karmali, Murgarui & Mugo’s sculpture “Jua Kali City”: two large metal drums, the larger one representing the formal sector in cities, with a stylized skyline, complete with glass and computer parts. The smaller one, the informal sector, is logically made of corrugated iron, scrap metal and wood. As Tahir Karmali says: “Without the ideas and inventions of the informal sector, the official sector could never survive.”
Life cycles, recycles
In many African countries, economic independence never happened. Resources continued to be extracted and transported to the Global North. And this left the continent to fend for itself. In so doing, the young entrepreneurs have often leapfrogged Western technologies, land lines never made it into homes, but now everyone has a mobile. And if technology per se is not available, turn the old stuff you have into something new. Africa imports countless second-hand goods (along with mountains of cheap plastic). Cars no longer deemed road-worthy in Europe run seemingly forever, bits get cannibalized, new trans-marque autos emerge. Okwui Enwezor, one the minds behind the show, comments: “I believe that the concept of recycling is very, very important, because Africa can teach us how things can be given a new lease of life; how by ingenious means they can take on new shapes and forms. The politics of recycling must become part of our discourse on design.”
The exhibition is admirably strong on examples of such ingenuity in the exhibition, some more symbolic than others – beer can ring pulls that have morphed into El Anatsui’s giant shimmering curtain of an artwork. Or the used plastic bottles and bags that are so choking African landfills that Bibi Seck has turned into low tables and chairs. Perhaps most subtle of all is the photo-series “The Prophecy”, a project made possible by crowdfunding and destined to highlight pollution in Senegal. The striking images all feature an admonishing Goddess-like female figure – whose strange robes reveal themselves on closer inspection to be largely made of the very waste the images seek to challenge.
Modernism & Independence
So what happened with independence? To the right of the entrance to “Making Africa”, in the Gallery project space, a second exhibition on Africa is running: “African Modernism”. It documents more than 80 buildings in five countries: Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Zambia. The buildings were all created post-independence in the Western Modernist vein, and only few of them are adapted to local needs or cultures in the vein of “Tropical architecture” – as can be discerned from the many retrofitted air-con units.
The team led by Manuel Herz has done a laudable job of creating an archive, even a memory, of what African leaders tried to do after independence: building conference centers, hotels, universities, to establish a post-colonial presence and international links. Or simply to show off. This is largely Modernism without the holistic Bauhaus mindedness to be encountered so clearly in the exhibition next door. But it highlights an underlying problem that has not changed since the 1960s and independence. Back then there were few or no local architecture faculties. So buildings got designed the way they were drawn in universities in the West. And if one looks at where the designers trained, the picture has pretty much remained the same.
My take-home was: There is a mass of creativity in Africa, but a decided dearth of education facilities. Potentially a tragedy in the making for a continent characterized by a predominantly young population thirsty not just for water, but for knowledge and skills. Nelson Mandela once said: “There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
Architecture of Independence. African Modernism
African Modernism. The Architecture of Independence
Afro-Functionalism – architecture from and for Africa: Africa’s cities are growing super-fast. So what can the small and ingenious architectural solutions contribute that many commentators so applaud?
"Caribbean Sun" by Cyrus Kabiru (2012), image from the "C-Stunners" photographie-series. Photo © Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
In the exhibition, art, fashion and design are thematically arranged. Photo © Vitra
Omar Victor Diop "Mame", photograph from the series "The Studio of Vanities" (2013). Photo © Victor Omar Diop, courtesy Magnin-A Gallery
Bodys Isek Kingelez: "Étoile Rouge Congolaise" (1990). Photo © Bodys Isek Kingelez, Courtesy C.A.A.C. - The Pigozzi Collection
Andile Dyalvane, designer and founder of Imiso Ceramics. Photo © Imiso Ceramics, Courtesy Southern Guild and Imiso
Justin Plunkett: "Skhayascraper", Rendering (2013). Photo © Justin Plunkett, Courtesy The Cabinet
Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan by the architects Heinz Fenchel and Thomas leiterdorf, 1962-1970. Photo © Iwan Baan
La Pyramide, Abidjan by Rinaldo Olivieri, 1973. Photo © Iwan Baan