Design Africa

Design Africa

African art is HOT now! Across the continent galleries and museums are mushrooming, like a glorious aesthetic addiction. On the global scene, for the first time, an African curator, Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, oversaw the Venice Biennale. New York’s Armory Art Fair was recently ignited with thought-provoking African exhibits. Making Africa, a major show about contemporary creativity, has just ended at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

So what about African design? What’s happening to the continent’s world-famous craft excellence? Is contemporary design reflecting global trends such as urbanisation? Does it reference the centuries of traditional expertise? The international art publisher Thames & Hudson has just released an ambitious and excellently photographed book titled Contemporary Design Africa. Written by British-born Tapiwa Matsinde, who is of Zimbabwean heritage, it introduces 50 leading African designers working today. The primary focus of the book is on interiors, with sections on furniture, textiles, ceramics, basketry and decorative items such as lighting.

In this book ‘African design’ is interpreted broadly to cover indigenous practitioners, members of the diaspora, and others who have settled on the continent. No one book can give a comprehensive account of design across an entire continent, but this one goes a long way. It is very insistent on regional diversity and cultural differences. One of the vestiges of colonialism is the way that Africa tends to be treated by unenlightened commentators beyond its shores as a country, rather than as a continent.

Some significant pan-African tendencies are highlighted such as recycling, or ‘upcycling’, as current design-speak would have it. Resourcefulness being a way of life in Africa, it’s usual for everyday objects that are broken, no longer useful or indeed fashionable, to be remade in a different form. For today’s artists and makers, being inventive with available materials not only addresses the post-consumer waste of increasingly populated cities, but also creates dynamic, witty, urban-chic design.

Senegalese Ousmane Mbaye refers to himself as the ‘King of Recycling’, using discarded material which he reworks into functional, fabulous furniture. “At first I worked with whatever materials were within my reach – petrol drums, old water pipes. I didn’t have a lot of money to buy materials. In hindsight, I’ve come to realise that all materials are noble. It all depends on what you do with them”. His designs have a savvy industrial edge; their linear, abstract forms relating back to 15 years spent working in his father’s refrigeration repair workshop. Mbaye insists: “There is no such thing as ‘African design’, but there are
African designers,” emphasising that while ‘African design’ is rooted in Africa, it is also universal and absolutely contemporary. Like so many fellow designers Mbaye’s furniture has been exhibited internationally, included in a landmark show, The Global Africa Project.

Mama chest of drawers by Jean Servais Somian. Cote d'Ivoire

Mama chest of drawers by Jean Servais Somian. Cote d’Ivoire

Again in Senegal a group of carpenters and their apprentices, along with a Spanish designer, Ramón Llonch, have formed Artlantique. They salvage the Samba wood of discarded fishing boats, giving them a new lease of life as highly original furniture. Battered paintwork on the old boats gives each piece a unique character. “The real raw material is not the actual wood from the boat, it is the life of the boat itself, that of its master and family”, says Llonch.

16 years ago Hamed Ouattara, a fine artist and furniture designer established his studio, Hamed Design, with the intention of promoting visual art from Burkino Faso to an international audience. “Design for us
(Africans) is a door to the alternative, new creations that can improve our lives while enriching us culturally”. And ‘alternative’ his furniture undeniably is – fun, funky and futuristic, while literally drawing on the past for its materials. “My goal is to provide a key point on the continent which suffers from imports and all kinds of imitation furniture”. Ouattara and colleagues make furniture from discarded metal with a worn but lively patina, vivid colours, and scraps of advertising text that tell stories about the materials’ former incarnations.

Onwards flows the river of upcycled design towards Zanzulu’s use of discarded telephone wire to create sophisticated decorative items, primarily vessels. Based in Durban, the organisation took off 20 years ago, repurposing the wire while referencing traditional South African beadwork and basketry. Now more than 150 formerly unemployed women from urban and rural areas have learned to fuse inherited craft techniques with cutting-edge contemporary aesthetics. So much so that Zanzulu products are exhibited and sold around the world, becoming South African design classics.

Also based in South Africa, Heath Nash reuses plastic and galvanised steel wire to turn post-consumer waste into innovative and desirable lighting. He calls his production ‘Other People’s Rubbish’. Speaking about what he feels is a local unawareness of sustainable solutions for discarded waste, he comments: “People are generally quite shocked that my lighting is made from rubbish… My point is that it’s possible to re-use plastic straight away and take it to a sophisticated level”.

Africa’s design industries are currently concentrated in Morocco, Senegal and South Africa. It’s heartening that Matsinda’s book includes Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, bridging the usual art world division between countries north and south of the Sahara. Indeed, this ideological vast sandy gap was addressed in depth at last year’s 1:54 art fair in London. In Morocco elegant furniture and home accessories are given a touch of glamour by the application of gold and silver leaf. Khmissa salvages discarded tyres, which are not biodegradable. The reclaimed rubber is applied to forms of recycled wood,
the grooves of the tread forming decorative patterns. “We take a poor material, which is locally burnt in ceramic ovens releasing harmful toxins into the air, and turn it into functional products” says Bettina Lamghari el Kossori, who along with her husband Said also employ Berber women to make rugs using recycled strips of fabric as a substitute for expensive wool.

Ile tableware by Jade Folawiyo. NIgeria

Ile tableware by Jade Folawiyo. NIgeria

South African artist Michou uses wooden bowls normally sold by the roadside to tourists. But these bowls have been carved away at their edges to form abstract shapes. “In their imperfection lies their beauty” says Michou, who then water-gilds them with gold and silver. Water-gilding is an ancient North African technique; a highly skilled, labourintensive process of transferring microthin leaves of these metals onto wooden objects. As Michou says: “The gilded bowls bring Northern Africa and Southern Africa together in the juxtaposition of constructed formality against spontaneous carving work”.

The theme of reviving craft traditions with a contemporary twist is another pan-African design phenomenon highlighted in the book. The continent’s rich past is constantly referenced, its timelessness and high level of expertise and ingenuity. African art curator Sidney Littlefield Kasfir underscores this by
commenting that Africa’s creativity has never stagnated, but continues to flourish because its societies continue to produce visual art for practical use. As well as indigenous heritage, today’s makers draw on imported design. Through trade and colonialism, European, Indian and Islamic cultural elements were assimilated into local societies, Islamic influence deeply rooted in Swahili culture; Dutch and Scandinavian further south on the Cape Coast.

In South Africa and Zimbabwe the tradition of beadwork flourishes today. Bishop Tarambawamwe grew up in a rural area of Zimbabwe, where in between herding cattle and attending school, he would play around with beads and wire, making miniature cars and other toys. He moved to South Africa in 2002, beginning to create and sell beaded wire sculptures inspired by his traditions, inevitably adapting his designs to local demand. He and his team constituting Master Wire & Bead Craft make highly sophisticated, exquisite objects using glass beads and a local seed traditionally used to aid teething in rural areas. “I never thought of my wirework as art. I just wanted to earn an income, until one day, a man commented that our products are masterpieces”.

Developing the theme of reinterpreting inherited traditions, Matsinde writes: “Craft is not only the dictionary definition – ‘the skillful making of decorative or practical objects by hand’… classical craft brings a soulfulness to African design that is hard to ignore”. Mass production is of course a threat to individuality, quality – and the soulfulness of its products – but they’re cheaper than handcrafted ones. Traditional techniques done by hand obviously take time and are labour-intensive. Nevertheless, the designers featured in this book are not only making a decent living but are also employing others and – this is the crunch – effectively marketing their work, and collaborating with national and international interior and fashion designers, decorators and architects.


Indigo textiles, Amaridian by Aboubakar Fofana. Mali

Aboukar Fojana of Mali, who is one of the foremost practitioners of traditional West African indigo and bògòlanfini (mud cloth) techniques, conducts workshops around the world. African design has become global, and people are prepared to pay for it. He says: “The process of making and working with real indigo is time-consuming and no stage can be skipped or shortened. Understanding how to build a vast vat and produce consistent and deep colours has taken me many years, and I am still learning. If you don’t have passion, it’s impossible to continue. Passion is the key to why I do what I do”. It’s hard to attribute passion to a machine.

Senegalese-French Aissa Dione collaborates with indigo dye-master Aboukar Fojana, with whom she created sawura, an organic cotton dyed with natural indigo. But for the most part, her company called Aissa Dione Tissus concentrates on woven textiles. In 1992 Dione started working with one of the last remaining Mandjaque groups who had emigrated to Senegal from Guinea-Bissau, bringing their weaving techniques with them. From one original loom, Dione has invested in many more, increasing their width to make intricately woven textiles more commercially viable, and has developed contemporary patterns and sophisticated (subdued) colour palettes. Now employing over 80 women, she has been working with the governments of Burkina Faso and Togo to help develop and save their classical weaving cultures.


Full article published in Omenka magazine Digital Issue II

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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