Tapiwa Matsinde on Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair
Tapiwa Matsinde is a London-based writer, author, editor, publisher, curator and consultant. She holds a Masters of Arts degree in design management from the University for the Creative Arts, Surrey. Matsinde is adept at researching, promoting and writing about contemporary African design, to bring the work of talented designers, makers, and creatives from the continent and diaspora to the attention of diverse local and global audiences. In 2015, she published her first book, Contemporary Design Africa and profiled over 50 designers and makers working on the African continent and beyond. Recently appointed as guest curator of the 7th edition of Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, she sheds light on the theme she chose Heritage & Modernity, her selection process and the development of contemporary design in Africa.
Congratulations, you have recently been appointed the guest curator of the 7th edition of Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair. What new direction can we expect from the fair and what inspires your curatorial philosophy?
Thank you, it is an honour to be a part of this prestigious event.
The incorporation of Well Made in Africa builds on its introduction in the previous year, and I see the theme being adopted across HmC as a whole and as a way of recognising and celebrating a continent united in upholding artisanal-led creativity and production.
Shining the spotlight on Africa’s contemporary designers, makers and their work, as well as challenging the stereotypes associated with African design underpins the work that I do, be it curating, writing or consulting. And connecting those I work and come in to contact with to the various platforms I am involved in, is done with the aim of increasing visibility and encouraging growth, not just for the individual but for the industry as a whole.
Contemporary Design Africa gives a broad overview of design in Africa. Is there any such thing as African design and what would you opine are its characteristic features?
The term ‘African design’ on one hand raises complex issues around identity, race and culture and on the other has historically been, and still is, associated with stereotypes that portray the work as being primitive and tribal amongst others, and as a result the term has tended to point to the perception of one homogenous aesthetic. But Africa’s design is multi-dimensional; it does not draw on one defining aesthetic or source of influence, which in theory then makes it impractical to apply African design with all its historical connotations as a blanket term to the design now emerging from the continent. However contemporary design in Africa is still a relatively young industry and it has been necessary when collectively referring to designers and their work to do so under the banner of African design to give it context, but at the same time taking care to highlight the differences. Challenging the stereotypes, African design stands for innovation, ingenuity, craftsmanship, sophistication, diversity, sustainability and heart and soul. As we witness more names emerging from the different countries we will see more references to say Nigerian design, Senegalese design, Ugandan design and so forth.
What can you attribute to the increasing global interest in African design, as well as the rising phenomenon of design fairs all over the world?
We live in a world that is always seeking the new, the unexpected and increasingly, a deeper connection to the products we choose to surround ourselves with, and design from Africa fits the bill. Designers across the continent currently experience a high level of freedom to create and this has resulted in solutions that do not conform to the typical global expectations of how design should be. Africa’s design is fresh, it displays originality and in stark contrast to the hardness and perfection of machine produced design, the imperfections that come from making by hand create a soulfulness, an emotional connection that draws you to the work. And on another level, design from Africa is also leading the way in creating practical solutions to addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Design fairs and exhibitions are a way of bringing the work together, putting it into context and providing platforms to study, understand and introduce the ideas and concepts into the global dialogue.
How successful has the fair been in responding and adapting to changes in the market over recent years and how does it plan to continue to remain relevant?
The Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair started out focusing on South African artisanal-led design. As the HmC has grown over the years, the addition of Well Made in Africa, inviting designers from other parts of the continent to participate, has been warmly received. The HmC’s recognition of this is resulting in the potential expansion of Well Made in Africa alongside, plans to bring the concept to selected African countries. This means that the HmC will not only provide opportunities for more designers and artisanal producers to take part and increase exposure for those taking part, but will encourage the intercontinental trade needed to create sustainable design industries across the continent.
Can you share in detail, your process of selecting the 5 African designers who will be exhibiting alongside South African designers at this year’s edition of the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair?
Spending as much time as I do researching and writing about the industry getting to know the existing and emerging names, their work and practice, one develops a kind of sixth sense about who will suit a specific platform. When the HmC organisers invited me to be this year’s guest curator, I instinctively knew the designers that I wanted to put forward. Instinct alone, however, is not enough; it was important to ensure that whoever was selected would be suitable and meet the criteria required by the HmC. The process therefore involved identifying potential designers whose work would represent the theme I chose of Heritage & Modernity, a theme that acknowledges the generational skills of making by hand and how these skills are being utilised to create modern sophisticated products by today’s designers. In addition to this, it was not enough to be an African designer. Given the title Well Made in Africa, the selected designers had to display an active commitment to production on the continent. Once I had a selection of designers, I presented them to the HmC team along with short bios and sample images of their work. Taking into consideration the work of each designer and how it would fit in with HmC from both an aesthetic and retail perspective, the 5 designers were then selected.
“This edition aims to showcase, as well as demonstrate that African design effortlessly competes at a global level.” How will you articulate this position?
My role as a curator is to ensure that the selections I make meet the objectives of the platform I am working with. For HmC, the emphasis is on high-end artisanal design, and as such all participating designers and brands have been chosen to showcase this. The 5 designers I selected are no different, their design sensibility and commitment to ensuring a high quality standard of production enables them to compete alongside the best of their peers locally or globally. And at the end of the day the work will speak for itself.
Do you have any advice for emerging designers who would like to show their work not just locally, but also on a global platform?
Showing on a coveted local or global platform comes down to who knows about you. So build a network, connect with other designers, reach out to the journalists and bloggers in your industry, letting them know when you have a new collection or other news you want to share. Showcase your work at relevant local events, you never know who is watching. Join a design group/organisation and you could benefit from opportunities such as participating in group exhibitions, as well as being among the first to hear about opportunities to show your work. Digital technology has made it easier to get your name out there; invest in a website even if it is just one page and ensure you include the relevant keywords to increase your chances of being found in search engine searches. Use social media platforms to promote your work. And however you choose to put yourself out there, always be professional.
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