Afropolitan Design

Afropolitan Design

‘There is an image, an idea of Africa that lives deep in human imagination… It is alive within each of us on a primordial level, inexplicable yet undeniable.’ – Maya Angelou

Two recent design exhibitions in Europe have been exploring African journeys of selection from the continent’s indisputably magnificent visual heritage, whether of functional design such as pottery or furniture, or visual art like painting and sculpture. The two creative forms often morph into each other, erupting into experimental, often iconoclastic, frequently joyous, and also sometimes socially/politically-challenging work.

Few of the current generation of makers discard their heritage as irrelevant; many carry their traditional references into their work; while also drawing on modern urban structures, inspiring a new concept of ‘Afropolitan’ design. From such a multi-faceted continent, it’s hardly surprising that today’s contemporary design draws on such a wide range of disciplines, including distinctly urban ones like fashion photography, video, film, graphic art, illustration and animation. Other design forms which include architecture by such luminaries as David Adjaye and Francis Kéré, reference rural, human realities, while integrating new concepts, materials and of course – the pull and influence – of urbanisation.

Cyrus Kabiru, Caribbean Sun, 2012. Image credit: AFP PHOTO / Carl de Souza

Does a collective stream of an idea of Africa exist as Maya Angelou suggests in design? Are the individual visions of today’s creatives merging into communal rivers? An exhibition in Rotterdam titled Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design, showing work by more than 120 designers and artists, proposes that design is related to the economic and political changes of the continent, and contributes to those changes. The concept of the show is that the experimental approach and fluency in using new media introduces the world to a new vision of Africa, in which design is a catalyst for change and visa-versa. For example, the 650 million mobile phones in Africa (more than in the USA or Europe), for the most part have Internet access. This opens up a conceptual gateway to the world that is of fundamental importance for the present-day transformation of the continent. It is also a massive influence on the work of designers and artists, who use new media with experimental daring and fluency, introducing the world to a new vision of Africa. Kenyan-born Cyrus Kabiru’s eyewear sculptures, for example, called ‘C-stunners’, propose that international views of Africa are often blinkered, since one can’t actually see through the spectacles. They are made from objects Kabiru gathered up from the street, from screws to sponges. ‘Sansa’ armchairs constructed out of knotted nylon fishing line by Cheick Diallo from Mali, are frankly useless as functional furniture, as they have only two legs at the back, which would tip out the occupant. Post-colonialism or what? Cardboard city models by Bodys Isek Kingelez from the Democratic Republic of Congo, expand the ironic questioning.

Cyrus Kabiru, Big Cat, 2012. Image credit: Amunga Eshuchi

By contrast, this exhibition in Rotterdam, Making Africa, references the positive, self-assured zeitgeist of the years around 1960, ‘The Year of Africa’, when seventeen of the continent’s countries gained independence. The show displays magazines and photography from that optimistic era.

Seeking Africa: Design/Art across a Continent was the first show in the UK to focus on the rich variety of African contemporary design. It proposed two themes, which dominated the exhibits. The first is a symbiosis with nature, focusing on natural materials, though creating items that are distinctly Afropolitan/urban, and let’s face it – that are hand-made, therefore expensive, and arguably – elitist. Yet the superb objects, which are works of art in themselves, convey a positive reflection of the transformative power of artistic creativity, the resilience against the many challenges of today’s African urban society.

Basket weaving is one of the most deeply rooted crafts on the African continent. Yet today there are only four South African Master Zulu weavers, of whom Beauty Ngxongo is the most famous, with her work in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and in other major world museums and private collections. And exquisitely beautiful her baskets are, particularly in their shape. ‘I find my creativity between the spaces of craft and art, thereby blurring the two’ she says. ‘Each basket though stitched with a weave unique to me, nonetheless carries with it, the method of basketry born of necessity and functionalism that has served the Zulus’ needs well for hundreds of years.’ These baskets of indigenous raw materials are watertight, so closely are they woven (by hand, of course), with 180 to 300 stitches per square inch. And their colours are derived from natural sources too.

Hamed Ouattara, Cabinet, 2015. Image credit: Themes and Variations

Beauty describes the symbolism of her craft – the diamond motif as the female representation, while the triangular pattern denotes the male. She is HIV positive and has suffered many personal losses, yet remains ‘positive’ in another way – the unarguably large and visually dominant feminine diamond motifs overpower the triangles in her basketry.

Traditionally many African women have preserved the heritage of their communities. ‘Gone Rural Collective’ is a group of nearly 800 women in Swaziland who create large baskets conveying emotional narratives; while their organisation helps its members empower themselves through their craft to tackle issues of health, sanitation, water and education. Siphiwe Mngometulu was abandoned by her husband many years ago and raised six children. As an example of her work, her Biography Basket is a method of processing the challenges of being the backbone of her family. Her daughter, Bonakele Ngwenya, battled depression and straitened circumstances after giving birth very young. ‘What has been the biggest impact in my life is that I have been taught how to make use of my hands and to be able to survive through them.’

Pottery is considered to be one of the most spiritually charged art forms in Zululand, redefined by Jabu Nala, a third generation ceramicist, whose work is in national and private collections both in South Africa and abroad. She initially learnt the traditional Zulu technique from her mother, in which vessels are coiled rather than turned on a wheel, quite a lengthy technical challenge. Then, for centuries, they have been burnished with river pebbles and decorated with incised or relief patterns before firing. Nala started to emancipate herself from pure functionalism into greater creativity, in which for example, handles are abandoned, and by experimenting with alternative surface decoration, including cutting, scoring and layering, the negative spaces and reliefs become far more prominent.

Porky Hefer, Nest, 2016

Clive Sithole is Jabu Nala’s son. Though ingesting his expertise in pottery from his grandmother, Nesta Kala, in a sense he has broken with the female Zulu stronghold on ceramics, so key in local community interactions. Traditionally in Zulu communities, three types of vessels were made for social gatherings, and also for spiritual ceremonies.  The first is the imbiza, for brewing liquid. Next comes the umanchisana, used to store water or grain. Then there’s the ukhamba – dishes for serving. After they are fired, most Zulu ceramics are blackened ritually – to symbolise the place where ancestors live. How Clive Sithole reworks these forms, is to embellish them with incised geometric patterns and cut-out circular features. His vessels have won numerous awards for their sophisticated burnished surfaces and beautiful shapes.

The symbiosis with nature in African design is further illustrated by its makers’ use of wood. Once again, the contemporary explosion of design concepts in South Africa is illustrated by Porky Hefer’s cocoons for retreat and relaxation – very Afropolitan! For these cocoons, he uses sustainable Kooboo cane and leather. He says he pays tribute to the extraordinary ability of his country’s weaverbirds by creating human scale interpretations of their complex nests.

The Dokter & Misses design collective is Johannesburg-based, and primarily uses painted beechwood to create furniture. The husband and wife team is inspired by the architectural tradition of the Kassena people of Burkina Fasso, whose houses are constructed like fortresses to ward off enemies and heat. Their houses are covered with geometric motifs, the S.A. design collective covering their furniture with graphic linear patterns.

Jabu Nala, Ukhamba Vase, 2016

Jean Servais Somian from the Ivory Coast uses coconut wood, a sustainable alternative to rainforest timber. He draws inspiration for his furniture design and sculpture from West Africa’s rich heritage of woodcarving. To hone the coconut wood, he uses custom-made tools created for him by local blacksmiths. This wood is challenging – it contains elements of extreme hardness and also fragility. To preserve these apparently contradictory characteristics, he hollows out parts of the wood to create ‘windows’ or apertures.

The second major theme of Seeking Africa is arguably a familiar concept – that of reusing and recycling. In a world of the acceptance of the disposability of global resources and excessive consumption, Hamed Ouattara from Burkina Fasso says: ‘My goal is to provide a counterpoint in a continent that suffers from an excess of imports, poor-quality imitations, and products that don’t reflect our culture.’ His fundamental mission is to use local, cast-off objects, such as discarded plastics and metals. He is well-known for his transformation of used petrol and diesel drums into highly finished pieces of furniture. Each piece resonates with its own worn patina, referencing its former life.

Beauty Ngxongo, Zulu Heart Basket, 2016

South African Mark Hiltout says: ‘I am fascinated by imperfection. This has drawn me to the beauty of old, painted and rusted corrugated iron.’ Forever associated with townships and the poverty implied by corrugated iron roofs, this material is rescued by Hiltout. He collects discarded, corroded and even wrecked sheets, reworking and riveting them together, sometimes painting parts of them. His panels thus become metal tapestries, exuding delicate patinas and textures.

Each maker in these two exhibitions has a distinct, individual and locally rooted presence, yet ‘there is an image, an idea of Africa’ as Maya Angelou would say, that proposes a shared modern African design identity, an Afropolitan one, in which social engagement, respect for heritage and sustainability connect.


Seeking Africa: Design/Art across a Continent was shown at Themes & Variations, London.

The exhibition Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design was held at Kunsthal, Rotterdam.

Originally trained as a photographer, Juliet Highet lived in East & West Africa as well as India, subsequently also travelling to 52 countries. In Nigeria she began writing professionally and on her return to UK began editing books and magazines. Highet is widely published on travel, the arts, perfumery and much more. She is the author of Frankincense: Oman’s Gift to the World, and a specialist in contemporary Arab culture and its heritage.

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