Is African design having a moment?
Not according to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a denizen of contemporary art. Rather, the curators believe the continent’s artists and architects are shaping the future of design entirely.
In their latest exhibit, Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design, the museum showcases some of the freshest names in the art world as a whole (they just happen to all be African).
Shaping a new world order
Co-curators Amelie Klein and Petra Joos note that despite common perceptions that shape Africa as a land of “famine, corruption, or imposing landscapes,” one of the most defining features of the continent is innovation.
“The world as we know it is in transformation – politically, economically, socially, culturally and technologically. Anyone wanting to know how design can facilitate or even accelerate this change would be well advised to look to the south, especially at Africa, where the changes are very evident,” she says.
“African design covers a fascinating spectrum of concerns that goes beyond recycling, traditional craft, or humanitarian design.”
Road to Bilbao
Researching for the exhibition “was a long process” Joos says, telling CNN about the many trips she took to Lagos, Dakar, Cape Town, Nairobi and Cairo. However she adds that it was mainly local artistic communities calling the shots.
“We had think tanks with intellectuals, directors and artists,” she explains. They asked questions such as “What is design?” “What is Africa?” “What is African design?” the results of which found their way into the show’s prologue.
“It’s interesting because there was a lot of difference of opinion,” says Joos. “They agreed; sometimes they disagreed. The visitor will see that in the exhibition.”
Split into four sections, Making Africa negotiates many areas: “Prologue” addresses Western preconceptions; “I and We” looks at African solutions and responses to communication – both at an intimate and societal level; “Space and Object” discusses environmental influences on creativity; and “Origin and Future” explores the notion of time.
Overall, 120 artists helped participate in exhibition, which includes the work of design heavyweights like Nigerian photographer J.D. Ojeikere and British-Tanzanian David Adjaye. These titans of the scene make their presence felt alongside the likes of Afrofuturist Ikire Jones and sculptor Cheick Diallo. All have equal footing when telling the story of contemporary African design, and help showcase the diversity of its creative community.
Stretching out across the globe
Joos notes that the size of the African diaspora abroad has led to cross-pollination in the world of design, whereby Africans abroad influence and are influenced by the cultures that surround them.
“We did an exhibition a few years ago when we only invited African artists living on the continent, but now it’s absolutely impossible, because we have so many Africans going back and forth. They’re living in Africa, but also in Paris, in London, even the United States.”
This manifests itself in their work, she argues. “They’re absolutely connected to everything,” she says. “They are not limited by European design, for example. They know what’s going on everywhere, and filter that through their culture and traditions.”
Unlike European design however – which Joos argues is “more formal” and “industrially realized” – Africans are reveling in the journey towards the final object. “Africa [is] a hub of experimentation, generating new approaches and solutions of worldwide relevance, and [is] a driving force for a new discussion about the potential of design in the twenty first century.”
“The process is more important than the result,” Joos says; “this informal creativity is so African. It’s not European, it’s not American, and it makes a big difference to us.”
‘Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design’ runs until February 21.